Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #297: Plaything of Management

Having spent time in college as a radio DJ, it is no surprise that one of my favorite TV shows of the past was “WKRP in Cincinnati,” a show about the radio business.

The station manager on the TV show was Mr. Carlson. Mr. Carlson didn’t like managing the radio station (owned by his mother). Since he didn’t like dealing with the radio business, he spent a large part of his day playing with toy trains.

Mr. Carlson was afraid that spending the day playing with trains would make him look unprofessional. The staff would cheer him up by saying something like, “You aren’t playing with trains. You’re a ‘Train Hobbyist.’ All the great business executives have hobbies. You are a connoisseur of trains and a collector of train replicas.”

That pep talk would make Mr. Carlson feel better, and he would go back to playing with his trains.

There are only so many hours in the day. The daily pressures of what to do with those hours can be intense. Yet, in spite of all the demands on our time, we seem to find time for our hobbies.

Hobbies are the things we really like to do and prefer to spend time on. For the fictitious Mr. Carlson, his hobby was playing with toy trains. He could always find time to play with them.

In the business world, daily pressures demanding your time can come from many different sources. There can be problems with key customers, production issues, supply chain problems, price wars, and so on. The daily tyranny of the immediate can drain all the time out of a day, leaving nothing left for pondering long-term concerns. As a result, time tends to run out before executives get around to the serious effort needed to create great strategic plans.

So what is a strategist to do in order to fight for executive time and attention? Well, as I said earlier, executives always seem to find time for their hobbies. Therefore, if you want to get top management attention, you need to make them into “Strategy Hobbyists.”

A dear old friend of mine used to say that strategic planning departments exist at the whim of senior management. His point was that all businesses have to have things like Human Resources Departments, Accountants, Lawyers, Salespeople and Operations Managers. However, having professional strategists on staff is optional. Many have them; many don’t. It only exists if by whim the management wants it.

Therefore, part of the role of a strategist is to get the audience to want strategy. Otherwise, they will eliminate it (or give it so little time that the process is destined to fail).

As my friend put it “You need to become the plaything of management.” In other words, your goal is to have them want to play with strategy in the same way Mr. Carlson wanted to play with toy trains. Or, as I put it, “You need to make strategy their hobby.”

In general, I believe that people are looking for three things from their hobby. Therefore, if you want to get top management to make strategy their hobby, you need to find ways to have strategy supply these three things. They are discussed below.

1. Boost Their Ego
Hobbies make people feel better about themselves. This can be both in an absolute sense and a relative sense. In an absolute sense, hobbies can provide the opportunity to become an expert in something. It feels good to be an expert in something. One reason why many hobbies involve making things with one’s hands is that one can proudly look at the completed piece and say “I made that.”

In a relative sense, hobbies can provide status relative to others. If you are the expert, people come to you for advice. They look up to you, and not just because of your title. And it allows you to tangibly demonstrate that you are better than others. Part of the fun in playing golf is when you can beat others because of your superior playing ability. It is a way to elevate your stature in a competitive world.

How can we apply this to strategy? Appeal to their egos. Help them see that becoming experts in strategy will boost their stature with their peers. It will help them beat their competition in a way more satisfying than golf. Show them how enacting a business plan can be a way to make a tangible difference to the company that they can point to and say “I did that.”

Unfortunately for the strategist, when you build up their ego, it means focusing attention away from your own ego. However, this can be a small price to pay to keep within their whim.

2. Let their Imagination Escape
Good hobbies help people temporarily escape the drudgeries of the day and transport their mind to a more enjoyable place. Mr. Carlson could escape the drudgeries of being a boring station manager and pretend to be a rail baron during the heyday of the train industry.

Golf courses transport you to a place of lush greenery which feels worlds away from the office. Being the captain of your own sailboat out on the lake feels powerful, free and in control, far from the normal world which often feels out of control. Working with wood or spending time gardening can taking you back centuries to a world that seems a lot less complicated. Hobbies take you to another world—another role—which is a pleasant escape from the norm.

How does this apply to strategy? Strategy is about creating visions of a better and brighter future. It is a way to escape the tedium of the immediate and focus your imagination on good times. In imagining the future, you are in control and things are going your way. You can tackle big issues—fun issues—instead of the petty boring things which normally turn up. Show them that strategyy is a legitimate and honorable way to escape the tedium for awhile.

3. Be Fun
Hobbies are to be an alternative to “work.” Yes, a lot of work may go into a hobby, but the secret is that is does not feel like “work.” It feels like fun.

Does your strategic process feel like fun? I’ve talked to many executives who groan when they are told they have to do strategy work. They hate it. To them, it seems like going through the motions of filling out boring forms, going to dull lectures, and getting books filled with boring statistics. Rather than being an alternative to tedium, it becomes tedium at its worst.

Don’t fall into this trap. Make strategic planning a fun escape that executives look forward to. If it is seen as fun and important, then people will gladly do the work of strategy and create something meaningful. If it is just seen as useless busywork, you will get halfhearted, worthless participation.

Since strategic planning is often viewed as an optional activity, executives can opt not to do it. Instead, they can fill their time with the pressing issues of today. If you want to make strategic planning a priority, you need to make it appear like a hobby—something people always seem to find time for. To do so, you need to show how strategic planning can boost their egos, let them justifiably escape the tedium of today and have fun. That will get you the time and attention you need to produce a quality plan.

Strategy is still hard work. But if it seems like a hobby, then it doesn’t feel like hard work.


  1. Great post. The idea of taking strategic planning and turning it into a creative and fun experience is fascinating. Rarely do we think of it as a fun task, and why not?
    I'd also like to add that working through scenarios and goals can be a process that involves more than just executives. It should be broadened to include a wider range of ideas and perspectives. By doing this, fresh outlooks can be explored and perhaps - a 'gem' found.
    Tonya Welch

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