Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Strategic Planning Analogy #419: Get Into the Flow
I used to work with a company that would go into a panic the week before the quarterly board meeting. They acted as if they were totally surprised that a board meeting was coming up. They never seemed prepared. As a result, there was always a last minute rush to get ready (with lots of overtime).
I was always flabbergasted by this lack of preparedness. After all, the board meetings were put on the calendar almost a year in advance. They were mandated by law to be held quarterly and they had been holding these quarterly meetings for decades. I wondered why everyone seemed to act as though the meetings were a surprise.
I used to joke that these people are so out of touch with the rhythms of the business that they are probably shocked every morning when the sun rises in the east. They probably say to themselves, “Wow! The sun rose in the east AGAIN. What a surprise! I wasn’t ready for that. Didn’t it just do that yesterday? I wonder when it will do it next time.”
There is usually a rhythm or flow to a business. It is the way things get done on a recurring basis. Some activities seem to effortlessly mesh with the flow of the business. Others seem like a major disruption to the flow.
At the company mentioned above, board of directors meetings were treated as a disruption to the business flow. The normal flow had to stop while panicked people altered their routine and rushed to get the director’s meeting job done. After the board meeting, the normal flow returned and people acted as if the board had never met.
When it comes to strategic planning activities, we have a choice. We can either build a structure where strategic planning meshes into the regular flow or we can have it appear as a disruption—like those board meetings. As we will see below, strategic planning is better off when part of the normal flow.
The principle here is that strategic planning is more effective when incorporated into the daily flow of business. This will not occur on its own, since the “tyranny of the immediate” tends to naturally push longer-term strategic issues out of the daily flow. Therefore, if you want strategic planning to be part of the daily flow, you have to actively work to make it so. Otherwise, you will end up with a dysfunctional mess like I saw with those board meetings.
Why Strategic Planning is Less Effective When Seen as a Disruption
There are several reasons why strategic planning is less effective when seen as a disruption. First of all, the reality is that a company moves in the direction of the daily flow. It is the sum of all those little decisions and daily actions which causes a company to become what it is. You can put a business mission or vision statement in a fancy frame and place it on the wall, but if it is not a part of the daily flow, it will have no impact on the business. You may as well frame a picture of a dancing bear and put it on the wall for all the good it would do.
For example, if your strategy calls for radical change and the daily flow doesn’t change, then the change strategy will never take root and become reality. The simple truth is that you are what you do. If the implications of the strategy are not integrated into the daily flow of what gets done, then the strategy will never succeed. So if you want an effective strategy it must move beyond disruption status and get integrated into the flow, where the real decisions are made.
The second problem with strategy-as-disruption is that it is often not taken seriously. After the disruption of an annual strategy session, people go back to their routines. It’s sort of like taking a vacation or going on holiday. It can be a fun diversion—a pleasant disruption of the routine—but afterward, the old routine returns. Or it can be seen as an unpleasant disruption, like getting the flu. Once the illness is over, the goal is to get back to the normal routine as soon as possible. Either way, the connection between the disruption and the routine isn’t made because the disruption is not taken seriously enough to cause any real lasting change.
It reminds me of what the civil servant government employees in Washington DC are known for. Tradition has it that they frequently say, “Government administrations come and go. Sometimes they are Democrats; sometimes they are Republicans. They make all kinds of pronouncements about grand new programs and new ways of doing things, but in a couple of years they are gone. Then another administration shows up with their own pronouncements. Well, we were here before these administrations, and we will be here long after they are gone. So we will keep doing whatever we want, just like we have always done before.”
In other words, the government doesn’t change much, because the everyday workers of the bureaucracy reject the disruptive calls which come from the outside politicians. The daily flow stays the same because the pronouncements aren’t taken seriously, and the grand strategies go unimplemented.
Steps to Get Strategy Into the Flow
Since it is critical to get strategic planning into the daily flow, it is prudent for the strategist to take steps to ensure that happens. The first step would be to create visibility at the point where daily decisions are made. If the key decision-makers only see the strategists once a year at an annual planning meeting, then the strategists will only be a small, maningless distraction. If you want to impact the daily decisions, you have to be visible all the time—to be there when the regular decisions are being made.
Get on the calendar of as many of the decision making bodies as you can. Go to the meetings. Steer the discussions to consider the strategic implications of what they are considering. If they won’t let you into the meetings, get to the meeting members prior to the meeting. Make sure the strategic context is top of mind and part of the normal decisions within the flow.
The second step is to provide a link between the conceptual and the practical. Business Missions and Vision Statements can provide a great conceptual framework for where you want to take the company or brand. But that doesn’t mean that everyone can intuitively understand how it impacts their own day-to-day actions.
For example, let’s say that your strategy is to become a leader at providing some functional attribute, like service, or quality, or speed. That sounds nice, but how should a salesman do his or her daily task differently in order to expedite this strategy? How should someone on the shop floor act differently as a result of that mission statement? Where should R&D efforts be directed to make the strategy a reality? How should a secretary answer the phone as a result of this strategy?
Unless you can provide a link between the words on a paper and what the average person does on an average day, they may never make the link. Don’t assume people will figure this out on their own. Help them to make the connection. Help them to see that the everyday actions of everyday employees impact strategic success. Help them to find ways to act in support of the strategy rather than (unknowingly) against it.
Ask people to visualize how the daily flow should look when the strategy is fully operational. Then help them figure out how to change their processes in order to get in line with that visualization.
Finally, pay attention to metrics. Metrics are the way we measure the daily flow. If you want the daily flow to move in concert with the strategy, then use tools which measure how well the flow is moving with the strategy. Don’t expect the daily flow to support the strategy if the measurement tools and benefit packages reward a different type of performance. For example, if you want to win on quality, don’t focus on cost control metrics and rewards
Some people use a version of the Balanced Scorecard to accomplish this. However, it might just be as simple as making sure that once everybody sees the link between what they do and the strategy, to measure how well that link is getting done.
Strategic execution is most likely to be successful if the strategic planning process is integrated into the daily flow of how things get done in the business. Otherwise, you end up with strategic planning as being a minor disruption which gets ignored when the real work is resumed. To ensure that the strategy is integrated into the daily flow, consider the following actions:
a) Increasing the visibility of strategists and strategic thinking throughout the year at the places where routine decisions are being made.
b) Helping employees at all levels of the organization see the link between their everyday activities and the overall strategy.
c) Using metrics to measure and reward how well the daily flow is reinforcing the strategy.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how ineffective many Boards of Directors are. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they are often seen as a disruption rather than as part of the daily flow (as we saw in the story above). Unless you want your strategic planning