Sunday, August 22, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #347: GPS

I love those GPS devices you can put in cars. I’m a typical guy who doesn’t like to ask for directions, and with GPS, you don’t have to ask for directions.

I remember when those devices first came out, and about the only cars that had them were rental cars. I was on a business trip to go visit some stores. I put the addresses of the stores I wanted to visit into the GPS device on the rental car and the device would tell me how to get to the stores.

That worked fine until I put in the address of one particular store. The GPS device took me to a location, but the store wasn’t there. I got really angry with the GPS device for taking me to the wrong location. I was blaming it for having a defect, because it did not get me to the store I wanted to see.

Eventually, I figured out that the store I was looking for was no longer in existence. The GPS accurately took me to the empty lot where the store used to be. Apparently, my list of store addresses was out-of-date. The device was fine.

I guess this goes to show that even the latest and most sophisticated technology is worthless if you fill the device with out-of-date information.

The purpose of the GPS device is to help a driver more easily get from his starting point to his desired destination. Strategic planning has a similar function. Its goal is to help a company more easily get from where it is now to its desired destination.

Therefore, instead of having GPS stand for Global Positioning System, we should rename it the Global Planning System.

The principle here is that we can make strategic planning a lot more popular and useful if we borrow some of the functionality which has made the GPS device so popular.

1. It is next to the driver during the journey.
The beauty of the GPS device is that it is right there in the car next to the driver during the entire trip. It isn’t anchored to your desktop computer back in your office. The GPS is highly useful specifically because it is immediately available when you need it most—while you are driving.

Unfortunately, not all strategic planning systems work this way. In many cases, the strategist is there at the beginning helping to set up the destination and the path for the company, but once the journey to the future begins, the strategist is not in the “car.” It is as if the strategist is waving to the company car as it pulls away, yelling to the driver “Good luck on the journey.” No wonder a lot of companies find strategic planning as irrelevant. They don’t take it along on the journey.

You wouldn’t set up a plan on the GPS and then leave the GPS device in the office. That would be silly. No, you would take the GPS with you to use in the car while you are driving. The same principle should apply to planners. To not bring them along on the journey is equally silly.

Usually, when strategists are left behind, it is because management sees them as being a part of corporate staff, and there is apparently no place for staff once the “operators” of the business to take over. This is a shame, because just as the GPS is most useful after the journey has begun, strategists can be most useful once the journey to the future has begun.

Strategists can be there to help companies interpret the environment they are driving into and make suggestions on how to adjust to that environment. With the ever more rapid changes in the environment, this type of in-car advice is more critical than ever. But strategists can only do that if they are in the car next to the driver.

If the strategists are left out of the car, the operators will make corrections and adjustments on their own once the journey begins. Due to short-term reward systems and the “tyranny of the immediate,” long-term considerations may not get properly reflected in those adjustments (no one in the car has their eye focused on the long term). Eventually, the car may get so far off the original course that nobody can figure out how to make those old maps given them by the strategists before the journey make any sense any more. This just reinforces their original perception that these staff planners aren’t useful for the journey anyway.

As a planner, as much as it is in your power of influence, make sure you get a seat in the car once the journey begins. This will make your services more relevant and more valuable.

2. There is live-time interaction and adjustment.
There is great power in the immediacy of the information of the GPS. When it is time to turn left, the GPS will tell you to turn left. When it is time to turn right, the GPS will tell you to turn right. And if you accidentally turn right when you should have turned left, the GPS will immediately help you get back on track.

The information is given to the driver at precisely the moment it is needed, in real-time interaction. The relevancy and usefulness is increased precisely because of the frequent interaction. If the GPS only dispensed its suggestions for turning once every hour, it would not be very useful. You would miss a lot of turns, because the information would come too late, after the intersection is long passed.

This is why it is a mistake to only use strategy as part of a long, drawn out annual process. If the only time major dialog between the operators and the strategists occurs is at some annual off-site planning retreat, the strategist becomes just as irrelevant as a GPS device that only tells a driver about turns once per hour.

The annual off-site retreat is an artificial environment. The car has been temporarily parked. The daily “turns” of business have been set aside. A GPS is not as important when the car is parked, and neither is the strategist.

A lot of decisions need to be made in the period between annual business cycles. If the strategist is not there, the decisions can lose a lot of the long-term strategic perspective. Strategic turns will be missed because the strategist is not there to point them out.

Therefore, as much as it is in your power of influence as a planner, make sure you get frequent interaction time with the operational leaders of the company. Insist on having a voice at the regular meetings where the decisions on which way to “turn” are being made. As you increase the frequency of your interactions, you will also be increasing your relevancy to the business.

3. It is easy to use.
People like the GPS device because it is relatively easy to use. You don’t need to spend weeks in advance filling out complicated paperwork each time you want to use it. Just a few simple clicks and away you go.

How easy is it for your company to use the resources of strategic planning? Does your process force operators to get lost in a sea of paperwork? Do they dread having to do anything related to planning because of all the seemingly tedious and time-wasting work your process puts them through? Are you as easy to use as a GPS device?

Fortunately, if you get points 1 and 2 correct (lots of frequent interaction at the times when decisions are being made), then a lot of that complicated process stuff is less critical. Your frequent interactions help you to know what’s going on, so that you don’t need others to write it all down for you on complicated forms. More frequent access to strategists usually leads to ease in interaction, since there is greater familiarity.

4. It relies on periodic updates of its database.
GPS systems make their advice based on their database. Since roads and road conditions change over time, it is important for the GPS database to get updated. Otherwise, the GPS can make improper suggestions.

Similarly, strategists need to periodically update their data and perspective on what is happening in the environment. Otherwise, the decisions based on the data will be out-of-date and irrelevant. Are you taking the time to stay relevant with what is happening in the environment? Or are you like the situation in the story, where you are directing people to empty lots, because your information is out-of-date?

If you want your strategic planning to be as desirable and as useful as a GPS device, then follow its examples:

a) Be in the car for the whole journey. Don’t just set up the trip and wave good-bye.

b) Have frequent and timely interaction with the key operators when decisions are being made—all year long. Don’t rely on an annual meeting to be your primary time of interaction.

c) Have an easy-to-use process, so people will want to interact with you.

d) Update your data periodically, so that your perspective remains relevant to the changing environment.

The Cooper Mini automobile from BMW is based off a design originally made for small race cars. That is why many of the key dials on the dashboard are in the center of the dash rather than right in front of the driver. When the small cars race, they have two occupants—one is mostly concerned about what’s happening outside and one is mostly concerned about what the dials are saying. This power of two makes for better racing. The same is true for businesses. By having the strategist alongside the driver, the strategist can better help the driver win the race.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Gerlad, Positioning strategic planning as a GPS device is yet another great analogy! In a way, GPS device, not only directs us to the final destination, but also, helps us to make decisions every step of the way till we reach the final destination – very much like - how strategic plan direct us not only to the final destination, but also help us to make decision every step of the way - as I had alluded in my pottery analogy (with destiny as the clay and decision as the water-

    Next, rightfully so, you have pointed out correctly that GPS is just a tool – and so, like any other tool - it will direct us only based on the information that has been fed to it as input - and so, in some cases, it can point us to wrong places if we do not have the correct destination address - as happened in your store locator example. In other words, if we get the destiny part wrong – all of the subsequent decision parts of the strategic plan will be wrong as well. Similarly, if we do not heed to the direction steps correctly, although destiny is right – we might end up making wrong turns during the journey – hence, may not reach the destination on time.

    Yet another point that caught my attention is – your point regarding how GPS device is like the iterative strategic planning process - as it stays with us in the car (there all the time like personal assistant), helps us to communicate on a continuous basis (not just one time), has a great user friendly interface (& and so more folks want to interact with it) and above all -helps us to change data (depending upon the environment changes). This point again reminds me of the iterative strategic planning process I had outlined in one of my earlier blogs-

    Last, but not the least , you have listed most of the positive usages of GPS device – except the fifth feature called tracking/monitoring– which can be used for both positive and negative purposes – very much like how tracking (or measuring/monitoring the progress)of the strategic plan can be used for continuous improvement if it is conveyed within the right context or it can lead to wrong decision making if the tracked information is conveyed to inappropriate people as they do not have the context to understand the tracking(or measurement data) information – thus creating more harm than benefit – very much like how GPS device can also be used by crooks to track/monitor us while we are in the middle of our journey (say in a country side) and potentially harms us or create unpleasant situations for us (or misunderstand/misrepresent us without knowing the context and reason why we are there in the first place).
    On the whole – yet another Gerald classic!