Thursday, March 25, 2010
Strategic Planning Analogy #315: Magnetic Pull
Electricity can be a powerful force. When I was a young Cub Scout, I did an experiment with wrapping a wire around the metal part of a screwdriver. The ends of the wire were then connected to a small battery. The result? A powerful electromagnet that could pull towards it any iron substance nearby.
Of course, I was told not to directly touch the wires but to hold onto the plastic handle of the screwdriver. Otherwise the power of the electricity would affect me as well.
I found that out the hard way. When I was in high school, I picked up an electrical item. I thought it had a protective cover on the bottom. It did not. There were exposed wires on the bottom with which my hand came into direct contact. The electrical current caused the muscles in my hand to contract around the device so that I could not release my grip. I could feel the sensation of electricity through my hand. I thought I was going to be electrocuted. The electricity certainly had 100% of my attention at that point.
Fortunately, I was able to grab the device with my free hand (in an area where there were no exposed wires) and yank it out of the grip of my other hand. Needless to say, it was a very shocking experience.
I learned two things from these experiences. First, the closer something is to an electromagnet, the more it is influenced by it. If an iron piece was close to the electromagnet, it would jump up and attach itself to the screwdriver. If it was far away, there was no natural attraction.
Second, if you are directly on top of the electrical current, it will grab you in a way that makes it almost impossible to escape. All your energy is focused on coping with the situation at hand. It consumes you.
A business can be a lot like that electromagnet. The closer you get to the core of the business in the organization chart, the more you are naturally drawn in. Your time, your attention, and your enthusiasm become attracted to the business like iron to a magnet. It is powerful and exciting. Your identity and self worth are more closely tied to the business and you are naturally motivated to put in the extra effort to help the company excel.
For the CEO, it can be even more powerful—like putting your hand directly on the current. The powerful current of the business takes control of the muscles. It is nearly impossible for the CEO to let go. The CEO becomes a workaholic, who can never separate him/herself from thinking about or acting on behalf of the business. The attachment consumes them.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If you are at a distance from the core of the business, the pull is weaker. Entry-level workers out on the front lines are not as emotionally grabbed by the power of the business. To them, it is often just a job, nothing more. There is no natural pull.
One of the challenges of strategy is that successful implementation often relies on getting extra effort and close cooperation from all those folks distant from the core who are not naturally drawn in.
The principle here has to do with proximity. The ones with close proximity to the top of the organizational pyramid are living in a different world than the employees who are at a distance. When you are near the top, there tends to be a natural force causing you to focus extraordinary time and effort for the good of the business. It all seems so natural and normal when you are within the magnetic power of the core.
Those distant from the core are not under that magnetic pull. Non-work aspects of their life have greater influence. Putting forth extraordinary time and effort for the good of the business does not seem natural and normal. Instead of being pulled in, there is resistance that must be overcome.
One problem I have seen over the years is that those inside the magnetic pull can often forget what it is like to live outside that pull. The pull becomes so natural to them that it is hard to imagine life without it. Therefore, these people on the inside of the pull start thinking everyone is being naturally pulled in. This leads to two strategic problems:
1. They overestimate the natural commitment of the troops to achieving the strategy.
2. They fail to create sufficient incentives into the strategy to overcome the lack of natural commitment (since they were not anticipating such a need).
As a result, strategic implementation fails to live up to expectation and the plan suffers.
I was reminded of this fact while watching episodes of Undercover Boss on TV. In this reality show, CEOs of large companies change their identities and pretend to be entry-level employees in their business. Although it is a different CEO from a different company each week, the story lines in each episode are very similar. The CEOs go out there expecting to learn a lot about their business on the front lines. Instead, they learn a lot about their people on the front lines.
These CEOs discover that the people on the front lines are struggling with a lot of issues that have little to do with the business. Because they do not earn a lot of money, it is harder for entry level employees to cope with all of these issues. This can act as a barrier to getting 100% commitment from them.
At the end of the TV show, the CEO reveals his identity and rewards some of the people he worked with on the front lines with recognition and financial support. The front line people are so tickled with being recognized that suddenly they are more committed to the company.
So what can we learn from this?
1. Don’t Assume that the Magnetic Pull is as Powerful out in the Field as it is at the Core.
Instead, assume that the motivation out in the field is less than what you see in your world. Assume more distractions from a strategic focus, either from life issues or the pressures of just getting the day-to-day work quotas accomplished in an 8 hour period.
2. Find Ways to Get Magnets out into the Field.
If you cannot get the front lines closer to the magnet at the core, build more magnets out in the field. This could include things like:
a. Greater Recognition of the Work of Individuals out in the Field.
b. Assistance with Coping with Life Issues (like having on-site daycare).
c. Linking Additional Pay/Rewards to the Additional Work Involved in New Strategic Initiatives (like Contests or Rewards for Meeting Milestones).
d. Showing a Better Long-Term Career Path to Entry Level Employees.
e. Enriching the Jobs.
f. Listening to the employees and Paying Attention to Their Suggestions.
Many of these things cost little to the company, but can have large rewards. When designing an implementation strategy, design magnets into the plan. Put aside money in the budget for this purpose.
The people out in the field live in a different world than those close to the top. Therefore, do not expect them to have the same natural level of devotion to the company. If you want high levels of strategic execution out in the field, you may need to incorporate more incentives as a way to increase the devotion to the task.
As I’ve mentioned before, Henry Ford used to complain: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Ford’s point was that when you hire people out on the front lines, you don’t just get robotic hands doing the task without question. Instead, you get the whole person, mind and all (whether you want it or not). If you don’t work on properly engaging the mind, you will not get all you desire out of the hands. Put some magnets out there to draw in the whole body.