Monday, June 7, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #330: Write a Complete Prescription

Suppose you were very sick and your doctor knew exactly what medicine would cure you. The doctor hands you bottle with a liquid in it and says, “The medicine in here will cure you. Well I’m busy and have to go see another patient, so good luck.”

After the doctor leaves, you look at the bottle. It has no label. There are no dosing instructions. Do I take a little? Do I take a lot? Do I swallow it or do I need a needle? How often do I take it? What about drug or food interactions? Do I take it with meals or on an empty stomach? Will it make me drowsy?

Now you become perplexed. If you take too little, it might not work and you might die. If you take too much, it might kill you as well. Other food and drug interactions could make the drug worthless or harmful. In other words, without additional information, this liquid, which has the potential to cure you, also has the potential to kill you.

Strategies are often viewed as being like medicine—something to cure a sick company. Strategists are like the doctor who prescribes the right cure—the medicine to put the company on the path to prosperity.

Unfortunately, these strategists are often like the doctor in the story. After they prescribe the strategic medicine, they disappear. If they are consultants, they often move on quickly to their next patient at another company. If the strategist is internal, he or she moves on to the next strategic challenge. They don’t stick around long enough to get involved in the “mundane” work of execution, i.e., how to successfully implement the strategy they just handed you.

You can think of dosages (how much, how often, how ingested) as being like an execution plan (what do I do make the strategy a reality). You can think of drug interactions as being like how a strategy interacts with corporate culture (combine a strategy with the wrong culture and the strategy won’t work). Just as a drug can be worthless or dangerous when dosages and interactions are ignored, a strategy can be worthless if execution and cultural issues are ignored.

And just as you would not find it acceptable for a doctor to give you medicine without dosage and interaction information, don’t accept a strategic process which is separated from execution and cultural issues.

Often times, we can fall into the “blame game” trap of trying to determine what is more important in business success—strategy, execution, or corporate culture. To me this is like arguing which is more important in a prescription—the medicine, the dosage, or the interaction information. All are important and they all need to be integrated.

All About Execution?
For those who think it is all about execution, I would say that is like someone who only focuses on dosage. Their approach is to put all the emphasis on getting the job done. Using the medical analogy, they would say, “If you just religiously take one tablet, twice a day, every day, all your problems will be over.”

Yes, getting the process down right and executing it every day is very important. If you never take your pills, you will never be cured. But what if you are taking the wrong medicine? Or what if you take pills randomly from an assortment in your medicine cabinet? Religiously taking one tablet, twice a day, every day then becomes meaningless at best, and deadly at worst.

Finding a way to run faster in the wrong direction doesn’t get you any closer to the finish line. Neither will taking a dosing instruction on the wrong drug get you closer to a cure.

I’ve worked with companies who were strategically adrift. They had no clue what medicine they should be taking. Many times, these firms were very, very busy. People were putting in long hours struggling to meet all kinds of execution expectations. In fact, these companies were so busy executing all sorts of random acts that they did not want to take time to sit back and figure out what their strategy should be. Unfortunately, because they were strategically adrift, all those actions were not helping them. Some of these very busy companies ended up going bankrupt.

As I saw in these companies, often times the problem is not about lack of dedication to execution, but in lack of focus (or the wrong focus). Given the right focus (based on a sound strategy), the activity becomes more productive.

Strategies tell you how to win in the marketplace. Without a good strategy, the only thing you can do is to try to out-hustle the other competitors who are also adrift. So perhaps, if execution is all you are relying on, it is a warning sign that you need to find a better strategy.

All About Culture?
There are others who put all of the emphasis on people and the corporate culture they work in. They would say that success is most dependent on building a healthy culture.

Yes, getting the culture right is very important. Doctors will tell you that a healthy lifestyle is very important—often more important than taking the right medicine. Almost any strategy is worthless when given to a company with a toxic culture.

But just having a healthy culture is not enough. Consider a healthy athlete who exercises well, eats the right food, and doesn’t abuse his body with tobacco or alcohol. Sounds useful, right? But what if he only sits on the bench and refuses to get into the game? That lack of execution makes the athlete not very useful. And what if the athlete doesn’t know the rules of the game or the strategy the team wants to use on the field? Lack of strategic insight will also make the athlete fairly useless.

Focusing on culture alone is not enough. It makes a great environment for success, but success won’t happen without execution or strategy.

All About Strategy?
There are others who put the emphasis on strategy. These people would say that if you position a company properly and point people in the right direction, everything else will take care of itself. But if strategy is all you are concerned with, you are no better than that doctor who handed off the medicine without any instructions. Unless I have instructions to know how to apply that cure, the cure is not very valuable.

Knowing what to do is not the same as knowing how to do it. For example, I may know that my strategic success is dependent upon being a leader in innovation, but that doesn’t mean that I know how to become an innovation leader. Strategy is only as useful as is actionable. Without the behavioral means, I will not achieve my strategic ends.

The Whole Prescription
We don’t argue about which part of the prescription is the most valuable—the medicine or the dosage or the drug interactions. We just see it all as just one thing—the prescription. If any of the parts are missing, the prescription is incomplete.

This is how we should approach our strategic process. Somewhere in the process we need to determine the strategic direction, the execution plan, and the cultural fit/health. And they all need to work together in harmony. If any part is missing, it should be seen as an incomplete process.

This is why strategists and strategy formulation should not be isolated from the rest of the process. Great strategies need to be appropriate to the context in which they will be executed. Unless strategy, execution and culture are addressed together, they will not work together.

Success is a combination of having the right strategy, great execution, and a healthy culture. They are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them. As a result, our approach to achieving success needs to simultaneously incorporate all three.

If someone were to ask me which of these three is the most important to focus on, I’d say it depends on which one is the most broken. Since each company has different levels of brokenness, the answer would be different for each company. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So focus on the weak link, wherever it may be.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald, this is a fascinating metaphor and the analogy is absolutely relevant. The triad of strategy, execution and corporate culture is inseparable. The three factors overlap and act simultaneously. It is like fire that needs a burning material, oxygen and fuel; else no fire. I could not agree more with you, Gerald.