Thursday, August 27, 2009
Strategic Planning Analogy #272: Exercise Your Mind
Last year, the exercise club I was using declared bankruptcy and shut its doors. There was no advanced notice—just a note taped to the locked doors. Well, it was getting close to the Christmas season, so I decided to enjoy the holidays and not look for a replacement exercise club until the following January.
Apparently, I must have “enjoyed the holidays” a little bit too much. When I got to the new club in January, I was woefully out of shape. I had gained a bunch of weight and could not exercise anywhere near the same levels of intensity I could at the old club. Even my blood pressure was higher.
It took several months of intense work at the new club to get back to the level of physical abilities I had before taking the time off. It was amazing how just a few weeks of neglect caused many, many months of effort just to get back to where I was before, let alone make any progress.
Without continual exercise, muscles suffer atrophy. They whither back to a weaker state. Unfortunately, it takes more time to get them back into shape than the time it took for them to get out of shape.
It’s sort of like a balloon. It is a lot faster and easier to let the air out than it is to later put the air back into the balloon.
As a result, the best way to exercise is on a continual basis—a little bit done frequently—rather than binge exercising every once in a great while. Continual exercise keeps the muscle tone in shape, so that you are always ready to use them when needed. I regret not having kept up my continual exercise through the Christmas season. I paid the price.
Although this concept seems logical for our physical muscles, it seems to be ignored by many when it comes to our strategic mental muscles. During the recent economic crisis, there have been many companies that have taken time off from strategic thinking, just as I did with exercise at Christmas. If any strategic thinking is going on, many of these companies are doing it on a binge basis, at infrequent strategy sessions.
Strategic thinking has a lot in common with exercise. If you don’t do a little bit on a frequent basis, those skills go into atrophy. And it takes a lot longer than you think to get good at it again.
The principle here is that strategic thinking is more important than strategic planning. What good is it to have a great planning process if the participants have let their strategic thinking skills go into atrophy? Great outcomes depend on great input. Great strategic input comes from those who are exercising those muscles on a regular basis.
When companies use excuses like the current economy to abandon strategic thinking, several things happen. First, the time horizon for framing issues shrinks. It’s all about getting through the next week/month/quarter. Long-term implications of short-term decisions stop being considered. That skill goes into atrophy.
Second, short time horizons cause people to look at the world as a snap shot rather than as a moving picture. Wayne Gretzky famously attributed his hockey success to skating to where the puck is going to be, rather than where it currently is. He instinctively knew that his world was in motion and that the way to win was to anticipate the motion and use it to his strategic advantage. That is strategic thinking.
However, when you get too focused only on the here and now, you lose the skill of anticipating the motion. The world becomes a snap shot. You focus on where the puck is now, rather than where it is heading. By the time you get to that spot, the snap shot has changed, so you enter a new crisis of getting to that new position. This leads to a cycle of perpetual catch-up crisis thinking, rather than proactive, anticipatory strategic thinking.
Third, abandonment of strategic thinking usually results in incremental thinking. Improvements are only seen as coming from small, incremental changes to the status quo (what you know and are focusing on), rather than bold, sweeping change (which is no longer being pondered).
Small incremental changes to film photography will never get you to digital photography. Small, incremental changes to carbon paper will not lead to photocopying. Itunes did not come out of little tweaks by the recording industry, but by bold, radical moves by an outsider not bound by the industry’s status quo.
Revolutionary ideas come from revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary thinking is not something you can conjure up on a whim. It is a way of life that you must practice on a regular basis.
Finally, abandonment of strategic thinking tends to minimize all sorts of other thinking. The mindset is focused on getting the “task of the day/week/month/quarter” accomplished. No time to question the validity of the move—just “git r done.” Motion becomes more important than direction. It doesn’t matter where we are headed as long as we are progressing on the task at hand.
Soldiers may be great at following orders, but their success depends on having the proper orders to follow. Proper orders come from good strategic thinking. Take that away, and all the great action of the soldiers is wasted effort. If all of your daily time is spent focused on following orders, you never develop the skill to develop what the next order should be.
Formal strategic planning meetings get a very small percentage of management’s time. If strategic thinking is not exercised on a regular basis, management will not be prepared to take full advantage of those meetings. All the time will be spent trying to unthink the thinking process of the rest of the year and getting geared up to think in a different way. And since those muscles are not used very often, they will not be functioning at peak form.
Worse yet, since the rest of the year seems to abandon strategic thinking, it makes whatever occurs at the planning meeting seem irrelevant to the rest of the year. It is no wonder that many strategies just sit on a shelf and don’t get put into practice. If you do not value strategic thinking all year long, why should someone pay attention to the results of a one-week effort in strategy put together by people not in peak strategic shape?
1) Incorporate long-term strategic thinking into the daily routine. Make sure that people get into the regular habit of considering the strategic implications of all their decisions, all year long. Continually ask “How does this decision impact our strategy? What are the greater implications of this move?” Ask it so often that people mentally prepare an answer in advance because they know the question is coming.
2) Make sure people keep “watching the movie.” If strategy is about anticipating future movement, spend time throughout the year looking into where the future is heading. Stop focusing just on the snap shot and have regular discussions/presentations on where you think the “movie” of your industry is headed. Talk often about where you think your “hockey puck” is going to be—changes in consumer desires, changes in regulatory environment, changes in economy, and so on. Educate people about trends throughout the year, rather than just at an annual planning meeting. Let it soak in, so that it becomes a natural part of the ongoing dialogue.
3) Match incentives to desired behavior. People tend to act in ways that maximize their incentives. If you want strategic thinking, reward that behavior. If all compensation is based on near-term results, all you will get is near-term thinking.
Strategy loses its effectiveness if it is compartmentalized into only one week in the year. Good strategic plans come out of good strategic thinking. Good strategic implementation comes out of good strategic thinking as well. Therefore, spend time throughout the year building up those strategic mental muscles so that you are strong and capable for the task ahead of you and can execute well on a daily basis. Otherwise, all your strategic planning efforts are for naught.
Exercise helps you lose fat in two ways. First, the activity burns up calories, which comes from burning your fat. Second, the activity builds muscles. The bigger your muscles, the more calories it takes to move them. Hence, future exercise is made more productive because those muscles make your body more efficient at burning calories faster. The same is true with strategic thinking. Not only does continual strategic thinking make your current decisions better (less negative “fat”), it places your company in a better overall strategic position (stronger “muscles”), which provides a better and easier launching point for more strategic opportunities.