Friday, January 8, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #302: Strategy Paradox

Years ago, I was revising my resume. I showed a copy to an expert in resumes. This expert had two comments.

First, he complained that my resume was way too long. He wanted it to be only one page long. My draft was about 3 pages long.

Second, he complained that my resume was not fully describing all my abilities and accomplishments. He wanted me to add lots and lots of additional details about my background.

I was a bit perplexed by the advice, so I asked him, “How do I triple the detail while at the same time cut the size by two-thirds?”

He did not have any suggestions on how to accomplish this. All he said was, “Go back and re-write it so that it is shorter and has more content detail.”

After that, I no longer asked for his “expert” advice.

Writing a business plan or strategy is a lot like writing a resume. There is this paradoxical problem of trying to pack in enough content to be effective (sell the person/idea) while at the same time keeping is short enough for small attention spans (not lose the audience).

On the one hand, you want to make sure that the plan includes enough detail so that everyone truly understands it and is motivated to support it. Simple platitudes like “We want to make a lot of money by selling desirable products at a profit” are worthless. Nobody will back you with millions of dollars and teams of employees based on such flimsy puffery. There needs to be substance, based on substantiated facts, concrete objectives, and sound strategic logic.

This is similar to resume advice, which tells people to fill the resume with documented “proof” that they are capable of delivering substantial and measurable benefits to their employer. Words in a resume like “at my last company, I improved sales by 37.4% and reduced returns by 50%, and I can do the same for your company” are powerful. They convert puffery into believability and desirability.

On the other hand, experts say that the average resume only gets a few seconds of attention. If you cannot grab the reader in the first few seconds, the resume gets tossed out. Long-winded discussions in a resume are “the kiss of death.”

The same is true for business plans and strategies. Big, fat planning books full of boring tables and numbers are the kiss of death. People will not take the time to figure it all out. The book will just be put on the shelf and quickly forgotten. Twitter has redefined “completeness” as 140 characters…far less than a page of words (and much shorter than this blog).

So the dilemma for planning is the same as for resumes: How do you pack in enough detail to be meaningful while being brief enough for the audience’s attention span?

The principle here is that the only way to effectively overcome this paradox is to no longer think of a business plan or strategy as a single document or a one-time event/meeting. Think of it as a conversation—little bursts over a period of time.

Although a lot could be said about how to optimize this strategic conversation, we will briefly focus on just five points.

1) Credibility of the Communicator
Since the audience does not have the patience to fully evaluate every little detail of your plan, they look for short-cuts to get a level of comfort with what you are saying. One of those short-cuts has to do with the credibility of the strategy communicator. If the audience has developed a sense of trust over time in the credibility of the communicator, then they will transfer some of that trust over to what the communicator is saying.

In other words, not only are you selling a strategy, you are selling yourself. Everything you do every day helps to either build up or destroy your reputation as a strategist. The better your reputation, the easier it is gain the attention of your audience and to convince them in manageable sound bites that you have something worth listening to.

Why do you think companies pay so much money to all those big strategy consulting firms? A lot of it has to do with the trust in their reputation. Because of that trust, they feel they can overcome the paradox—get good substance without wasting a lot of their attention span pouring over unending boring details.

Learn from the consultants and build increasing credibility into your reputation on a daily basis through everyday interactions and conversations.

2) Consistency of the Context
Strategic plans tend to be presented within a strategic framework, or context. Michael Porter has provided strategic frameworks in the past (like the five forces). There are also newer frameworks, like the Blue Ocean approach. In the hands of a good strategist, almost any one of these frameworks will suffice.

The point here is to just pick one and stick with it. Your audience is not as enamored with all of the latest fads and fancies of the academic world of strategy. All they want is a successful plan. If you keep changing your strategic framework, then you are burdening your audience with having to learn all of the new jargon and all of the new charts and diagrams that go along with it.

It’s hard enough getting the time and understanding of your audience without complicating it with layers of new strategic gimmicks to also understand. Don’t keep changing the language. Stick with a process they have comfort in. Then they can focus their limited time on the essential details.

The other advantage is that you can use the comfortable framework in everyday conversation as a form of short-cut. For example, I have been using some version of my own 3P framework for about 20 years (Positioning, Pursuit, Productivity). Once the audience is comfortable with the substance behind these three P’s, I only have to bring up one of the words in daily conversation, and people immediately understand the strategic context of what I am trying to say…short and to the point.

3) Frequency of the Interaction
If planning is only a topic of conversation once or twice a year, it will never get integrated into the everyday activities of your business. It will just be like a book sitting on the shelf that nobody reads—irrelevant.

It’s hard to make a relationship work if you never talk or see each other. In the same way, strategy must be a continuing topic of conversation with frequent interaction. Get out of the Ivory Tower and mingle. If people will only give you a short burst of attention, then give them lots of little bursts. Build the strategic foundation one brick at a time. Build your reputation through many short conversations. Keep the framework in constant relevancy by constantly showing its relevance. Get on the agenda whenever there are decisions being made.

4) Compellingness of the Story
People love stories. They not only touch the mind, but they touch the heart and the soul. Stories are more memorable than tables of numbers. People will pass along a good story to others.

There is a reason why I start my blogs with stories—they are effective at getting points across. Don’t be afraid to use stories to overcome the paradox. When I was at Best Buy, we had a number of stories, like the Tornado Story and the Apollo 13 Story that could rally the troops and quickly remind people of what Best Buy was all about, since the lore behind the stories was commonly known within the organization.

5) Consideration of Opposing Points of View
Leaders don’t typically like having points of view shoved at them. Instead, they want to have a say in the conversation. Strategy is not a monologue, but a dialogue. A strategy is only as effective as its implementation, and so you have to get the implementers to buy-in to the strategy. You are more likely to get buy-in if the implementers feel like they had a part in the conversation.

By having a regular, ongoing dialog with the leaders, you can discover their various points of view in a non-threatening way. This gives you time to build an effective way of handling these points of view (either incorporating them into the strategy or finding effective means to disarm them) over time in future conversations.

As a result, when it comes time for formal strategic decision-making, a lot of the posturing has already taken place and been resolved, so the meeting time can be more effective.

Effective planning processes are a lot like effective resumes. They find a way through the paradox of providing adequate substance while being brief enough to fit a short attention span. This is most effective when you think of the strategy as a conversation, rather than a book or a presentation or a meeting. These conversations are most effective when a) the communicator has credibility, b) the context is consistent, c) the interaction is frequent, d) the stories are compelling, and e) Opposing positions are dealt with.

I once worked at a company that hired a new CEO. I wanted to impress the CEO with my ability to help him, so I put my thoughts and recommendations together in a big fat four-inch binder (10cm). Without any conversation, I just sent it to the CEO. That was an utter failure. I will never do that again.

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