Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #260: Are You Better Off?

Back in 1980, it was a close presidential contest between current president Jimmy Carter and former governor Ronald Reagan. Even just a few weeks before the election, there was not a clear leader.

It was hoped that some televised presidential debates would help people make a choice. Unfortunately, there was a split between how to handle third party candidate John Anderson. Reagan wanted Anderson in the debate; Carter did not. This argument caused them to miss deadlines for the debates.

Finally, with a little over a week before the election, Reagan wanted so badly to get in a debate that he caved in to all of Carter’s demands. So on October 28, 1980, Carter and Reagan debated in Cleveland, Ohio.

Ronald Reagan’s closing remarks at the debate were, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago? If so, I encourage you to vote for my opponent. If not, I urge you to vote for me."

Given the Iran hostage crisis, the weakening economy, and rising inflation, it appeared that most felt they were not better off than four years ago. As a result, immediately after the debate, public sentiment moved largely in favor of Ronald Reagan, and he won by a comfortable margin.

Recently, there was a discussion on Linkedin about the sad state of strategic planning. During the current recession, it seems that strategic planners were often in the first wave of people let go. Not only that, recent unpredicted and unexpected events, like the housing slump, the debt crisis and the stock market slide had made people lose confidence that one can ever have much insight or influence over the future.

Finally, there was so much emphasis on near-term survival, that any talk of long-range planning seemed out of place in many companies. People were starting to believe that things change too fast and are too unstable to create any kind of meaningful long-range plan. The entire idea of strategic planning was starting to look out-of-date and useless.

Although I disagree with the conclusion, I can certainly understand the dilemma. To me, it goes back to the 1980 presidential debate. Business leaders were asking themselves a version of the question posed by Reagan: Is my company in 2009 better off now than it was several years ago?

The answer for most is “no.” Sales have plummeted. Profits have vaporized. Stock prices are down. Bankruptcies are up. By almost any measure, things are worse than before.

Now isn’t it the role of strategic planners to be the ones focused on improving the long-term prospects of the business? If the future is getting worse, then it would appear they are not doing their job.

Therefore, just like in the 1980 presidential election, companies are answering the question by throwing out the incumbents (the strategists) and are moving in a new direction.

The principle here is that if strategists want any respect (and want to keep their jobs), they need a favorable response to that question: Is my company better off than before? Or to put it another way, is my company’s future any brighter because of the strategic planning efforts we have taken? If not, Reagan’s approach would say to kick out the strategists.

Granted, the current recession is so deep and so global that almost everyone is worse off, regardless of strategy. But has your strategy at least made you less worse off than your competition (are you gaining an edge on them)?

That has been the situation for the Ford Motor Company. Years earlier, it could see what was coming and built a strategy that acted early to get in front of the problem. They refinanced their debt when that was still relatively easy to do. They sold the weaker divisions when there was still a relatively healthy market for selling them. They got leaner and meaner in preparation for tougher times. As a result, Ford may not be having great times today, but they are gaining share and are better positioned than many of their competitors.

Now, it might seem obvious that strategists should measure themselves on how well they are helping to steer a company into a better future. Yet, when I look at what strategists get busy with, that does not always appear to be a priority. Here are some ways that strategists keep busy at tasks that are only tangentially related to creating better futures.

1) Scribe
Yes, it is important to get all the words and numbers written down. Things need to be quantified and clearly described. Accountability requires it. But if most of your time is spent just getting things written down and organized, you are not adding much value to the process. A stenographer or an administrative assistant can pretty much do that.

After a certain point, any improvement in the way words and numbers are written down will not improve the quality of a company’s future. And that point is fairly low on the quality spectrum. Instead, the place where quality time should be is on the ideas and activities behind what is written down. How much influence are you having on crafting the content of what is written? How much time is spent making sure business activities are bringing the content into reality? Don’t just blame the ops people for bad implementation of brilliant words. If you act as nothing more than a scribe, you should expect poor implementation.

2) Oracle
Yes, visionaries can be critical to success. And yes, one often needs to see into the future before one can optimize it. But if visioning is where you stop, then it is not very useful. Unimplemented ideas are like money hidden under a mattress. If it is never spent, then you live like a pauper, no matter how rich you are. You never benefit from it and may as well be poor for all the good the money did. Ebenezer Scrooge may have had money, but he did not have prosperity of life.

If you want a better future, then time must be spent in applying the insights of the oracle. Just being smart is not enough. In fact, studies have shown that B+ students make for better entrepreneurs than A students. B+ students tend to work harder in real life, while A+ students are too satisfied in just being smart and resting on idea-making that doesn’t go anywhere.

3) Activities Director
On the old Love Boat TV show, Julie was the activities director on the cruise ship. Her job was to make sure that there were lots of activities going on (on schedule with no problems) and that people were happy doing something. Sometimes we can get busy doing things like Julie. We spend so much time making sure the activities of the planning cycle go smoothly (the various discussion meetings, the filling out of paperwork, the approvals, the offsite planning meetings, the communication meetings, etc.) that we lose sight of why all that stuff is being done in the first place.

Perfect meetings do not always lead to perfect futures. I’d rather have a sloppy process that creates real substance than a flawless process that nobody treats seriously. True planning is not the process of managing the planning cycle. You can hire meeting coordinators for that. True planning is managing the quality of what comes out of the process.

Better Ways to Be Busy
If you want to have a meaningful part in creating a better future, focus your busyness on three things. First, help people get an accurate understanding of their true condition. Provide knowledge and insight that makes them smarter about what the situation is. Break down inaccurate biases. If your people have an unrealistic bias about what your condition is, then you will create a strategy that is inappropriate for true reality.

Second, control the debate. Make sure the tough questions are addressed and true out-of-the-box thinking is going on. Stretch the minds. Help people see the long-term consequences of near-term actions. Help people to see beyond the status quo. Help people envision alternatives.

Third, don’t hand off all responsibility once the ideas are on paper. Be active in making sure tasks get done. Monitor actions to make sure they stay on track. Keep people accountable. Make sure the long-term agenda does not get lost in the tyranny of the immediate fires which scream for attention. Scream back at them.

If you focus on these three tasks, you should get a better answer when people ask if the company’s future is better off because you were there.

When strategists get a bad reputation, it is usually because leaders do not see significant value being added by strategists in the creation of a better future. Therefore, it is in your best interest to focus your limited time on the activities which are most critical to creating that better future. Don’t let the allure of “busyness” in lesser activities lure you into thinking your job is complete.

Ever notice any of those employees who have mastered the art of “looking busy” in order to avoid doing real work? You probably don’t have much respect for them. Remember that whenever you start feeling content in the busyness of being a scribe, oracle or activities director.

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