Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #264: An Efficient Waste of Time

Stephanie had an overweight dog. She went to the Veterinarian to get some advice on what to do about her dog’s weight problem.

The doctor said that what the dog needed was more exercise. He knew that there was a large park near where Stephanie lived, so he said, “You should take the dog for a few laps around the park every evening.”

Stephanie heeded the veterinarian’s advice and started walking her overweight dog a few laps around the park every evening. After awhile, Stephanie found this task to be very time-consuming and very boring. Stephanie said to herself, “I’m an expert in making things more efficient in the business world. I should be able to find a way to make this task more efficient as well.”

And so she did. To make the trek around the park faster and more efficient, Stephanie decided to put the dog in a car and drive her pet around the park a few times every evening. Not only was this faster, but the dog enjoyed it more. The dog loved sticking its head out the car window much more than walking.

Everything was perfect, except for the fact that the dog did not lose any weight.

Stephanie found a way to make the process of going around the park more efficient. Driving was both faster and more enjoyable than walking. Unfortunately, her efficiency “improvement” totally missed the point. The purpose of the trip around the park was to get her dog to lose weight. By prioritizing “efficiency of task” over “purpose of task” Stephanie failed to achieve the intended goal.

What Stephanie really created was an efficient waste of time. She got around the park faster, but without meaning or purpose…and the dog was still overweight.

As silly as Stephanie’s efficiency solution was, it is not that different from what I have seen in occur in strategic planning. Strategic planning is a process, but it also needs to serve a purpose. If all you see is the process, then you become like Stephanie, who only saw going around the park as a process. As you try to make the process of strategy more efficient, you can lose sight of the intended purpose. The result is a highly efficient strategic planning process—one that is quick and painless—but utterly worthless in moving the company forward.

The principle here is that the best strategy rarely comes from an efficient process. Forming strategies is messy work, and the process usually needs to be a bit messy as well. A little sweat and aggravation is needed to get the job done. Just as the dog could not lose weight in an efficient car, but only by slogging it out the slow way in a walk, great strategic solutions cannot be rushed, either. A slick, fast approach to planning can quickly become an efficient waste of time.

There was a discussion on Linked-in recently about all the neat little strategic planning tools one can use in a strategic planning process. Tools are great, but tools can make a royal mess if used improperly. For example, if you see a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) as just a list of blanks to fill in, then you can quickly devise a way to efficiently fill in the blanks. But you may end up with just a bunch of useless platitudes.

In general, top executives don’t like to spend a lot of time on strategy. They would rather dive into the “crisis of the day” and solve an immediate issue. They will encourage strategists to find “efficient” ways to do strategy, so that it takes up less time. You must fight this pressure and temptation.

Here are four reasons why Strategic Planning needs to be a slow and messy process.

1. Planning Needs to Break Down Preconceived Notions
Most great strategies reinvent the rules. They ignore the traditional way things have always been done and try something completely different. Conventional wisdom is thrown away and a new wisdom is invented. Strategist Gary Hamel puts a high priority on the need to break down preconceived notions about how business is supposed to work. You cannot invent the next new thing if your thinking holds too dear to the old rules.

It takes time to break down the old thinking patterns. You might hold so dear to a current business rule that you think it is the only way to get things done. By closing your mind in this way, you prevent yourself from even considering an alternative. For example, you may believe that:

a) All hospitals have to have an emergency room; or
b) Only governments can own and manage highway systems; or
c) Everything on the internet has to be free; or
d) Product development needs to be fully complete before introducing it to the public; or
e) Only a small niche of people are interested in organic.

There are people today who have defied conventional wisdom like this and are making money.

It can be a messy thing to get people to release their grip on tightly held notions. Letting go of the old and embracing the new takes time. If you short-change this process, you can have a company full of doubters who will not fully embrace your strategy. This will internally sabotage your ability to achieve your strategic goal.

2. Strategies Need to Challenge Current Power Bases
Many of the people in your organization have created a strong power base under the old rules of how things were done. Reinventing the rules can weaken or destroy that power base. Naturally, the ones with the power today will tend to resist a new approach which reduces their stature and influence.

Worse yet, if the only opportunity these people have to respond to this change is in a public planning forum, then they may take a strong public position of resistance which will make it difficult to back down later.

In these cases, there often need to be private moments, when challenges can be presented “off-the record” one-on-one to the ones who might be threatened. Negotiations can take place to help them find new bases of power. Extra time can be given to help them see the bigger picture…all away from the public eye, so that they can save face.

I worked with a company that was developing a new vision which threatened the power and influence of the old base business, where over 90% of the employees worked. Because the new vision was thrust at them quickly and publically, they felt trapped. As a result, they used their superiority of numbers of people to essentially do a coup. They took over the company and threw out all of the executives who were threatening the status quo.

If you skip the messy business of delicately transitioning power bases (because it is inefficient), you can end up with a mutiny rather than a strategy.

3. Eureka Moments Need Incubation Time and Diversions
In prior blogs (see Magic Eye and Genius Sleep), we have looked at some of scientific research behind the development of great ideas. In Magic Eye, we saw that eureka moments of great discovery almost never occur inside focused, efficient efforts at idea development. Instead, they tend to occur after laying aside these efficient processes for awhile and spending time at some seemingly worthless (or at least inefficient) diversion.

It could be spending time at some recreational activity (like sports), or entertainment activity (like watching a movie), or something as mundane as taking a shower. Regardless, the brain needs time to back off from heavy, efficient processing and drift a bit into a more daydream-like mode. Science found that the great insights come during this mental relaxation/diversion time after the “efficient” thinking process is done. Skip the relaxation/diversion time and you lose the great eureka moments.

In the Genius Sleep blog we found that the one most common characteristic between geniuses is that they tend to sleep a lot—often taking naps in the middle of the day. How’s that for a seemingly inefficient process?

This combination of alternating between efficient thinking time and random relaxation (or even sleep) time tends to generate the greatest strategic insights. It is a messy and time consuming process which by its very nature cannot be made efficient.

4. Strategies Need to Evolve and Adapt
New revolutionary ideas are rarely perfect right out of the box. They tend to get adapted and modified over time. That’s why so many firms now introduce beta versions to the public to gain more insight before the product is finalized. If the strategic planning process is only at the beginning of this journey, then you are missing the richness of applying a strategic approach to this adaptation. Instead, you may end up with random adaptation which ends up weakening and destroying the revolution rather than strengthening it through strategic coherence.

Since one loses some control over the process once it is released into the public, one needs a messy strategy process to interact with this more uncontrollable adaptation. Changes will be on the schedule of how the public wants to interact, not on some internal strategy calendar. Again, this cannot be rushed for the sake of efficiency.

The ultimate goal of strategic planning is to find and execute a path to a more prosperous future. Strategic planning can use some tools and processes to help achieve this goal, but one must never lose sight of the ultimate objective. Perfecting the “process” of planning to be as quick and efficient as possible almost always leads to strategic failure—an efficient waste of time. It is the time consuming and messy approach which brings better results.

Disney is known for its creativity. Chris Heatherly, VP of Toys, Disney Consume Products, described their success in creativity this way: “Some people want to cut to the chase. We tried it, and it just doesn't work…You have to have some decompression time to be creative.” How much decompression time is in your planning process?

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