Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #280: Mother May I

When I was a child, one of the games we played was called “Mother May I.” In this game, one person (called “Mother”) stood facing away from a line of children. The one playing the role of Mother then chose a child (at random, or in order), and announced a direction. These followed a pattern, like, "Bobby, you may take “x” giant/regular/baby steps forward/backward." The child then responded with "Mother may I?"

At this point, Mother then said "Yes" or "No", depending on her whim, and the child complied. If the child forgot to ask "Mother may I?" he/she went back to the starting line. The first one to touch Mother won the game.

The two most important things to remember when playing Mother May I are:

1) You cannot move unless you have permission.
2) If you forget to ask for permission, you have to start all over again.

These two points are also important to remember when developing a strategy:

1) Your strategy probably will not succeed in a space unless you have permission to be there.
2) If you do not ask for permission, the marketplace will punish you and you have to start again.

The principle here has to do with the concept of permission. A strategy only works if there is cooperation between your company and its key constituents—the consumers, strategic partners and employees. If your key constituents do not think you have a right to be operating in that space (or in that manner), you will not get the needed cooperation. Therefore, a necessary element to success is gaining permission from your key constituents.

1) Permission from Consumers
Over the last 10 years, Seth Godin has written a considerable amount on what he calls permission marketing. His idea is that un-asked-for one-way advertising (from producer to consumer) is very wasteful. Instead, marketers should first get permission to speak before spouting their marketing message. The idea is to create a relationship, or dialogue, with the consumer first, in order to create credibility. Then, when you give your marketing message, it will be better received, because the customer gave you permission and asked for the message.

This is all very fine and good, but I want to take this to a deeper level. Getting permission to speak is only half the battle. You also need permission to change the mental model inside the customer’s mind.

Consumers have a mental model about how things work and how various brands perform. For example, let’s assume someone wants to buy a new vehicle. Their mental model of choices may go something like this:

“If I want a reliable car, I should get a Toyota; if I want a luxury car, I should get a Lexus; if I want great value, I should get a Hyundai; if I want a truck, I should get a Ford.”

Brands are quickly labeled and slotted into a particular mindset. This mindset is the lens through which they see the world. If you, the producer, make a marketing proposition which is contrary to that mindset, the customer may not give the permission for that proposition to enter their mind.

Ford has been trying to convince people recently that it is not only the place to go for trucks, but also for automobiles. Ford now makes fine automobiles, on par in quality to Toyota and Honda. Unfortunately, the old mental model is so strong that Ford is having difficulty getting credibility as a viable automobile choice. People are not giving Ford permission to enter that mental space in their mind. That space is already filled by Toyota and Honda.

Therefore, before Ford can convince you to purchase one of their cars, they must first convince you that they have a right (i.e., permission) to be considered in your mind as a viable automobile seller.

Similarly, Wal-Mart recently tried to be taken seriously as a source for fashion apparel. It set up a quality fashion design studio in New York. It took out ads in Vogue magazine. It had a fashion show during New York’s fashion week. All that effort failed, however. Wal-Mart was still not taken seriously as a place for fashion. The project was a bust and most of the initiative got shut down.

The problem was not quality. The problem was permission. The consumer would not give Wal-Mart permission to be in that space. It took decades of careful image crafting to get Target to the place where it was seen as a credible source for fashion. Wal-Mart tried to get there in one year. Consumers would not permit it. The mental mindset for Wal-Mart is “Lowest Price.” This is incompatible with fashion ads in Vogue. The mind would not let the message in.

2. Permission from Partners
This same principle applies to your relationship with your strategic partners. Cisco and HP have been strategic partners for a long time. The relationship has been successful for both of them. However, in the past year these two firms have been invading each other’s territory. Cisco has made devices which cut out HP and HP has made devices which have cut out Cisco.

Neither one asked the other for permission to do this. They just did it.

The companies claim that these are rational growth moves and that their partners should understand that and rationally still work together in other areas as they partnered in the past. Unfortunately, we are not 100% rational. Companies, just like people, have an emotional element as well. These emotions get upset when a partner invades their space without permission. They retaliate with products that invade the other person’s space.

I suspect that in a few years all of that great strategic partnering between HP and Cisco will be a memory.

3. Permission from Employees
I know a company where they used to value their employees highly. The employees were considered to be the most important asset and were treated as partners. Then there was a change in command. The new administration started treating employees as a horrible cost to be minimized. They did not ask the employees for permission to make this change. The employees resented this change.

As a result, many of the good employees left the company. The ones who stayed were less devoted to the company. Rather than volunteering to work hard 70 hours per week, they started working only 40-50 hours per week. If they were going to be treated as”just an employee”, the employees would start treating their work as “just a job”. Enthusiasm and morale declined. Productivity was ruined.

Be careful about taking employees for granted. If you act without their permission, they can make your life miserable.

Just like the game “Mother May I”, if you want to move ahead, you need to ask for and receive permission. Otherwise, you will meet resistance. With customers, one needs to get permission to change mental mindsets. With partners and employees, one needs permission to change the status quo.

Getting permission takes time. It looks like a way to slow down a strategy. However, without permission the strategy goes nowhere. That’s even slower. So factor getting permission into your strategic timetable.

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