Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #341: Trophy or Pet?

The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri closed back in 2009. The Museum honored the life of cowboy singer/actor Roy Rogers (and his wife Dale), who made movies and had a popular television show back in the middle of the 20th century.

With the museum closed, the contents of the museum were auctioned off on July 16th of this year. Two of the more interesting items auctioned off were Trigger and Bullet. Trigger was the palomino horse Roy used to ride on the show. The horse died back in 1965. Bullet was the German Sheppard that appeared on the show, and was also Roy’s family pet. When Trigger and Bullet died, Roy Rogers had them stuffed by a taxidermist, so that they could be remembered and put on display.

Rural cable television station RFD-TV purchased the stuffed horse Trigger and the stuffed dog Bullet at the auction. They paid $266,500 for Trigger and $35,000 for Bullet. Bullet and Trigger will now be proudly displayed at the new Omaha headquarters of RFD-TV.

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of stuffing one’s pet after it dies to be a little bit disturbing. Putting one’s dead pet on display like a trophy seems a bit unnatural and creepy to me.

Although this may seem like an odd thing to do to pets, it is not that uncommon for companies to do something similar with their strategies. Instead of caring for the strategy as a living document, they put it on display, like a dead, stuffed animal. Fancy strategy books are placed on the shelf like a trophy. They may even be commemorated with coffee cups, plaques, or T-shirts, with the company logo and the strategy theme emblazoned on them. The coffee cups and plaques also get displayed on the shelf like a trophy.

And there they sit…on display. They may be looked at and admired every once in awhile, but for all intents and purposes, the strategy is treated as if it were dead…a representation of a frozen moment in time past. To me, this is just as disturbing as a stuffed pet.

The principle here is that strategies should be viewed as and cared for more like a living, breathing pet than as a lifeless trophy. In particular, there are three ways in which a pet approach is more appropriate than a trophy approach to strategy.

Principle #1: Trophies Come at the End; Getting a Pet is Just the Beginning
Trophies usually come at the end of an activity, to reward the conclusion of some endeavor. For example, after an athletic competition is over, the winner gets a trophy in honor of having won. It is a reminder of the success of prior event—a celebration of a job well done.

Getting a pet is just the opposite. The day you receive the pet is just the beginning of the activity. Now you have to start the work of feeding and caring for the animal. Rather than a celebration of a conclusion, getting a pet involves the promise of much work in the future. One time I got a pet from the humane shelter and they would not let me take home the pet until I promised I would spend appropriate time and money to properly care for it (I even had to sign a document attesting to that).

Getting a strategy should feel more like receiving a pet than receiving a trophy. True strategies are not end-points, but starting points. The primary purpose of a strategy is to help a company achieve a better future state. It is a roadmap to future actions, not a celebration of past activities.

Does your company treat strategy formulation more as an end (like a trophy) or as a beginning (like a pet)? Here are some clues. If people act as if creating a strategy is just a task be done—something to check off on a “to do” list—then they have a trophy attitude. If people say, “Boy, I’m really glad we finally got that done” when the strategy formulation is over, then they have a trophy attitude. If they see the strategy document as proof of task completion, then they have a trophy attitude.

By contrast, if people see the strategy as the first step on a long journey of future activity, then they have a pet attitude. If they see the strategy as a formal commitment and promise to take particular future actions, then they have a pet attitude.

Principle #2: Trophies Sit on a Shelf; Pets are a Part of Your Daily Life
There’s not a lot one can do with a trophy once you receive it. It just sits there like a dead, stuffed animal. You can put it on display and dust it off every so often, but that’s about it.

Living pets are totally different. They require daily care and attention. They need to be fed and exercised on a regular basis. If you have a dog, you soon find that feeding them, walking them, and letting them out to do their thing quickly becomes a regular part of your daily routine. But that’s not all. Pets also need to be checked to make sure they do not get sick. And if they do get sick, you have to provide medicine to cure them. And if you do not take care of your pets on a regular basis, the police can have you arrested for animal neglect and cruelty.

Strategies also need to become incorporated into your daily routine, just like a pet. If strategies do not impact how you act on a daily basis, then why do them? A strategy is like a roadmap. Just knowing where I want to go is not enough. I need to take actions on a daily basis which get me closer to my desired destination. Otherwise, I will never reach my destination.

If you do not regularly care for a pet, it will die. Similarly, if you neglect a strategy, it’s relevance will die. I’d love to see the police arrest executives for cruelty and neglect towards their strategy, just as they do for neglect and cruelty towards animals.

How often is the strategy considered when decisions are being made and actions are being taken at your company? Daily? Monthly? Quarterly? Never? Is consideration of the strategy integrated into the daily routine? Do people even see any relevance or connection between what they do and what the strategy implies? Is the strategy just left on the shelf to be admired like a trophy? Could your employees be arrested for strategy cruelty and neglect?

Principle #3: Trophies Don’t Change; Pets Do
Trophies are typically made out of strong, durable materials. You can put them on a shelf and they will stay there, unchanging, for a long, long time.

Pets, however, change over time. They grow up. They get sick. You need to detect these changes and then adapt to them in your actions. For example, as you see your pets getting older, you may need to change what you feed them. You may need to change the exercise routine.

Strategies are living documents which are to be acted out in a dynamic, changing environment. One needs to become aware of the changes that are taking place and adapt the strategy to the changes, just as you would adapt your actions with a living pet. Otherwise, your actions will be out of sync with your environment and the strategy will sub-optimize.

The original strategy document should not be viewed like a trophy, which always stays the same. It is a work in process. Rather than being like a hard, unchanging metal/wood/plastic trophy, think of your strategy as being more like soft clay. It has a definitive shape, but it can still be modified a bit as conditions change.

This is not to say that you should be changing your strategy as often as you change the sheets on your bed. We’re not talking about strategy abandonment, but strategy modification. Just as we keep the same pet for years and work with it through the changes, we keep the same strategy for years, and work with it through the changes.

Once a strategy formulation process is completed, how often does your company:

a) Scan the environment for changes; and
b) Adapt the strategies/actions to optimize in this changing environment.

Is your strategy etched in unalterable stone, or is it written with a pencil? Is it seen as a living document? Do you ever go back and modify it?

Strategies should be viewed as being more like living pets than like dead trophies. Trophies celebrate an end, whereas strategies should be seen as a beginning. Trophies sit on a shelf, whereas strategies need to be integrated into your daily routine. Trophies do not change, whereas strategies need to adapt to change.

My wife and I recently went back to visit the college she and her brothers attended many decades ago. We went to the athletic building to look at the trophy case. There were trophies from back in the years when my wife and her brothers attended. There were photos next to the trophies showing the players on those teams, including a couple of photos of one of her brothers. The problem was that the photos were so old and faded that you could barely recognize the players.

That’s the problem with trophies. Over time, the source of that trophy fades away from memory. Time marches on, and if you stop planning for the future, you’ll stop getting new trophies.


  1. Gerald,
    Let me start where you ended. You rightly summarized the post by saying “Time marches on, and if you stop planning for the future, you’ll stop getting new trophies”. It amazes me how true this statement is.! Yet; it is mind-bewildering how we tend to forget the principles. This is a true case. Strategy is visioning the future to make it today. However; it appears for some it is the past that we make today! People battling to make their past, which keeps fading away and still the same people keep trying to make it!

  2. Hello Gerald, for a change, a lighter topic – yet an important topic on its own merit. Speaking of your Trophy-Pet metaphor within the context of your statement “True strategies are not end-points, but starting points” – I am reminded of the famous statement from Churchill – “It is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning (after the victory at the Battle of El Alamein)”. I guess Churchill did not want to rest on their past laurels, but wanted his troops to have a continuous fighting mindset - or in your strategy terminology - continuous improvement mindset – as there is always something to improve upon.

    Within this, not resting on past laurels context- I am also reminded of yet another funny story. Apparently Bunny and Turtle decided to have a dash to decide who gets the trophy. Bunny – so confident of its racing skills (&past laurels) decided to take some rest along the way in the race track, as Turtle was so far behind. As it turns out – the bunny ended up sleeping on the track - whereas the steady turtle was so focused on the destination - marched forward to the finish line with an “it is not the end yet” mindset - and ended up winning the trophy. Granted, there is multiple variations of this funny story – I guess, the message here is- that steady race with an “it is not the end mindset” is the one that is going to help us to get to the finish line.Good one!