Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #301: Management by Voting?

We Americans love democracy. The idea of dictators dictating orders without a vote is not in our DNA. That’s why the USA likes spreading democracy around the world.

However, I’m not sure that putting everything to a vote in all situations is always the best idea. What if parents were barred from taking any action unless voted on and approved by their children? And what if parents had to do what ever their children voted on for them to do? I think that would cause a bit of a mess.

And what if every employee had the sole vote in how their individual career was managed (how much they got paid, what their title was, what work they did, whether they could get fired, etc.)? Probably the closest we ever came to that was the high levels of unionization in Detroit, and we can now see how that helped eventually destroyed Detroit’s economy.

And what if, in the middle of a war, soldiers refused to take any military action until all of the soldiers could have time vote on it? Military “orders” would merely be propositions to be voted on. With enemy bombs coming in your direction, reaction tactics would have to wait until a sufficient time for campaigning and voting occurred. And if each military unit independently voted on what tactic to take, there would be no unified military action…only chaos.

No, I think some areas of life need more balance between the input of the people and the wisdom of the leaders.

Businesses are not true democracies. Most items are not put to a vote of the Board of Directors, the Employees or the Customers. Instead, business leaders tend to determine what they think is best and get the company to follow.

The advent of Web 2.0 technology has made it easier for businesses to gather the input from a wide variety of stakeholders. This makes it easier to, in essence, put all management decisions up for a vote with customers and employees.

Many are hailing this as a great and wonderful thing. There are even books and business pundits declaring that Web 2.0 requires business leaders to relinquish control of the business to the customers, who have now supposed taken control of all the power.

Indeed, having access to all of that Web 2.0 interaction can enrich the decision-making process. The input is very valuable. However, I’m not ready to abdicate all business leadership to “the will of the people.”

Just as children need good parenting and soldiers need good commanders, businesses need good, strong leaders. And just as employers need to consider more than just the will of their employees, businesses must consider more than just what the latest Web 2.0 feedback says. And just as there are times when children need to obey their parents and soldiers need to obey their commanders, there are times when “voting” needs to be set aside so that business leaders can be obeyed.

The principle here is that all the exciting new Web tools are just that—tools to be used in the hands of leaders. They are not substitutes for leadership—especially when it comes to strategy.

About a month ago or so, I was reading a story in Fortune magazine about Best Buy. There was a quote in there from current Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.

One of my roles as CEO is to be the chief listener. I don't believe that the model is any longer that there are a few really smart people at the top of the pyramid that make all the strategic decisions. It is much more about being all around the enterprise, and looking for people with great ideas and passionate points of view that are anchored to the business and connected to things our customers care about.”

At first, this quote sounded good to me. Dunn was using the wisdom of others to help make more informed decisions. Then I thought about it for a second longer. This is more than just getting input. This was starting to sound like abdicating responsibility for creating strategy. Strategic leadership seems to have been banished from the organization. Rather than having tactics derived from strategy, strategy appears to be belittled to nothing more than the culmination of a series of independent and unconnected tactical decisions made “by the people.”

Tactics shouldn’t drive strategy. Strategy should drive tactics.

Dynamite can be a very useful tool, but without skilled dynamite users, the tool can destroy you. Similarly, feedback from others is a powerful tool, but if you eliminate the role of professional strategists at the top of the organization to properly apply it, it can destroy your company.

You need both—the tool (feedback) and the professional tool handler (the strategist). Eliminating the strategist can lead to the following problems.

1. Mistaking Ideas for Strategy
Interaction with stakeholders is a wonderful way to get ideas. Ideas are great, but they are not strategy. Strategy gets to the heart of the matter: What business should I be in? What is my competitive advantage? What business model should I use? How do I win in the marketplace?

Not all ideas are appropriate for all companies under all conditions. Good ideas are the ones which support the strategy. Great strategic leaders understand their strategic thrust and can cull out the best ideas for their particular firm from the others. Leaving it up to a vote gets what’s popular, not what’s appropriate. For example, consumers may all want low prices, but typically only one firm in an industry is the lowest-cost operator. For everyone else, a priced-based strategy is probably not going to win, regardless of what the people say they want.

2. Missing the Big Picture
One of the major benefits of business strategy is getting “the big picture” vision correct. Great “big picture” visions rarely materialize out of merely following the whims expressed in a series of votes on minor tactics. Creating these visions cannot be fully abdicated to others. Leadership needs to take possession and ownership of visioning process.

Your big picture goal is to optimize the opportunities for your firm. That is not the same goal as your stakeholders. Your customer’s goal may be to get everything, perfectly, instantaneously, and free. If all you do is try to serve their selfish need, you will not be optimizing your own goal. Their objectives are not always in complete alignment with yours. You need to filter their ideas through your objectives.

In addition, the people you talk to only have limited knowledge of a small part of your overall situation. Hence, their ideas are biased towards their limited perspective. You need professional strategists to bring all of the knowledge together in order to create a comprehensive and complete picture of what is going on in the world. Only when you can see the big picture will you see the best strategic alternative.

Finally, great strategy, according to Michael Porter, is about choosing the right trade-offs. Your customers may not like it when you make trade-offs (they want it all), but it is often the only way to create excellence at some point of differentiation. You need to be a strong strategic leader and determine where those trade offs will be. Then you need the fortitude to stick to the principles of your tradeoff and not fall victim to the trap of trying to do everything well and failing to do anything well.

3. Missing Discontinuous Change
Change in the marketplace tends to revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. New categories and business models seem to spring out of nowhere. On-line travel firms like Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity gave a death blow to traditional travel agents almost overnight. Bottled water came out of nowhere to become a huge industry. Digital everything destroyed analog everything. Mobile phones, microwaves and laptop computers changed the entire nature of how people live and work, impacting almost every other industry. Newspapers used to be one of the most profitable industries in the world. Now they are bleeding badly. The recent recession quickly changed the fortunes and the rules for a lot of industries, particular in the financial arena.

As long as the marketplace is stable and the rules and players don’t change, it is easy to forget about strategy. Just talk to all of the stakeholders who are comfortable with the current situation and you will get all kinds of ideas for useful tactics to tweak the system.

However, when radical change occurs, this management by talking becomes far less useful. There is no consensus in your stakeholders as to what to do. They have no direct experience in the change for you to benefit from. Mere tactical improvement suggestions won’t succeed when all the rules are changing.

Professional strategists are needed to:

a) Help anticipate the discontinuous change
b) Develop scenarios in advance so as to be prepared when change occurs
c) Help the company to become proactive in change and help bring about change in a fashion which disproportionately benefits your company.

Apple doesn’t wait to react to change. They didn’t “take a vote” of the world before introducing change. They lead the change. Ipod and iTunes reinvented the business model for music. Iphone reinvented smart mobile devices and the selling of aps.

As Henry Ford put it, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse.’” Suggestions from the masses tend to be extensions of what they know, which is the old business model. They are not very useful in proactively getting to the discontinuous new. And unfortunately, the discontinuous new is all around us. This is where professional strategists are most valuable.

Although there are many tools available for mining the ideas of your stakeholders, this is no substitute for having professional strategic leadership activity at the top of your organization. The best of all worlds is to have both—the insights of your stakeholders put into proper perspective by professional strategists.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Similarly, when users of Web 2.0 tools find out how to manipulate the system, it could herald the end of the current fashion of capitalism (of abdicating strategy to the masses), because they will suck all the money out of the business model, leaving you with the losses.


  1. Good post, I like your analogy. While I agree it would be a mistake to replace the expert advice of strategists, I also think creating an environment that encourages your people to think strategically will add value to the business. Investing in your front-line people increases the chance for successful execution of the strategic plan.
    Tonya Welch

  2. I agree with your comment. I think you will see that in my blog post for January 8.

  3. Leadership, creative thought, and strategic planning are all definitely an art that is not easily mastered. As you might agree with, there is a significant problem where managers have been promoted above their comfort zone and are not exactly contributing enough creative energy at they level they could (or are expected to).

    Leadership training and coaching is one option and it definitely has value as young leaders face new challenges. The other option is for more experienced leaders to take time and deliberately share their view of the world. By sharing the challenges at hand (that managers typically are working on) and the bigger challenges that lay on the horizon (the ones senior leadership is usually focused on)senior leaders will be able to groom decision makers who understand both the operational and strategic level of thought.

    While it’s not the only option, developing a balanced scorecard can also help middle management understand what measures really matter when it comes to making decisions and evaluating end results from the highest levels. As a team develops a balanced scorecard and begins reporting on it – they may consider automating the task with a powerful strategy management software tool like ClearPoint Strategy.

    ClearPoint charts data, evaluates data for trends, records relevant analysis and recommendations for emerging issues, provides ownership for accountability and gantt charts to compare progress with plans. The best part is that ClearPoint is a web-based tool that runs on any computer with an internet connect. It’s housed in a secure US facility and supported by highly competent US based engineers and strategy management experts.

    Visit http://www.clearpointstrategy.com today to learn more, look at examples of other organizations in action, and start a free demo version for you organization. And if you have any questions along the way, be sure to contact the support staff – they take pride if getting new organizations set up with an effective system quickly.