Monday, November 7, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #421: Tapping the Power

One year for Christmas I decided to put up a larger than normal Christmas light display in my front yard. I bought all sorts of new items to place in my yard, including a metal deer covered in lights with a motor that made its head go up and down.

Everything worked fine for a few days. Then it stopped working. The lights went out and the motor stopped working. I spent many hours over many days going over everything in the front yard trying to get it to work again. I assumed that something in the display was broken, so all I need do is fix the display and everything will be fine.

So I spent hours looking for the brokenness in the display. I wiggled all the wires in the display. Nothing helped. For the rest of the season, the display at my house was dark and lifeless.

After Christmas, I started to take all of the lights and displays down. It was then that I saw a switch in my garage that I had never noticed before. It was a circuit breaker switch. I pushed the button, and all of a sudden the remaining parts of the display began to work.

If I had only spent a second at the beginning of the season pushing that button in the garage, I could have saved all of those many hours wasted in the front yard trying to get that display to work.

My goal was to have a great Christmas light display. Therefore, that is where I focused my efforts. When my goal was not being achieved, I spent my time looking for a solution somewhere in the display.

Unfortunately, the problem was not hidden within the display. It was back behind the scenes in the garage. Had I only taken my eyes off the goal, I would have seen that the display was fine and that the problem was that there was no electrical power getting to the display. Had I spent more time thinking about the power behind the display, I would have had a working display that year.

A similar situation can occur in strategic planning. We can get so focused on our strategic goal that we forget about looking at how well the goal is connected to the corporate energy source. Since the goal is what we want, we look at fixing the elements of the goal when results fall short. This can all be a waste of effort, since the problem often is a result of insufficiently tapping into corporate energy. Turn on the power of the organization, and the results will come on their own.

The principle here is about discerning the difference between power and performance. Performance is the output—it is what we want to happen. It is our goal. Power, by contrast, is the input—it is the energy needed to accomplish the goal.

Strategic planning is usually pretty good about managing the performance. It helps us decide what we want to happen (goals) and how we are going to measure the results (metrics). Many times, however, the process comes up short on managing the power. It doesn’t go behind the scenes to ensure that sufficient energy is focused on the plan.

Power is often just assumed to be there. Just set the goal and the work will get done. Therefore, all the effort is spent on getting the right goal and measuring the progress towards the goal. Nobody bothers to go back into the garage to make sure the power switch is set in the “on” position.

The real problem occurs when performance falls short of plan. If you focus only on the performance, you may not be able to fix the problem, because the cause may be insufficient power.

For example, let’s say that you have a goal to achieve dramatic sales growth for a particular product and performance is falling short. To fix the sales problem, you may look for a sales solution. You may look to change the advertising, or change the pricing, or start a new sales promotion, or some such similar tactic. This would be similar to when I tried to fix my Christmas display by tinkering with pieces of the display. And, like with my Christmas display, all those efforts may not work.

However, if you stepped back to consider the power in your organization, you may have found that there was nothing wrong with the original plan (as far as it went). Instead, the problem was insufficient motivation amongst those required to do the selling (not enough power). Perhaps they do not believe in the product. Perhaps they have put their power behind a different product in the portfolio. Perhaps they just aren’t motivated to work hard because they feel no loyalty to the company. If you fix the power, the performance will come all on its own, because highly motive employees can accomplish much.

Problem #1: No Power
There are two ways in which a company can mismanage power. First, they may not create sufficient power. I have personally witnessed how much performance is impacted by the level of power running through the employees.

For example, I worked with a company that used to have a lot of power flowing through the employees. They were highly motivated to “do whatever it takes to win.” They loved the founder and would go the extra effort in response to that love. The place felt like a family and everyone worked hard for the good of the family. The power was huge and performance was outstanding.

Then something happened—the founder retired and the new leadership destroyed the feeling of family. As a result, work became nothing more than just a job. People went from voluntarily working 70 hours a week (because they loved doing it) to working only 50 hours a week. The energy levels during those 50 hours went down as well (because they didn’t love doing it as much and they didn’t care as much). The power of family love was replaced with unproductive in-fighting. Personal goals replaced doing whatever it takes for the greater good. And, not surprisingly, performance started to suffer.

The company is scrambling to find ways to get performance back up. But the focus in on adjusting the tactics rather than the power behind the tactics. As a result, they are fighting a losing battle.

In essence, the company had unknowingly turned off the switch in the garage, not realizing how much impact that would have on the display out front. And now they are trying to fix the problem by tweaking the display rather than turning the switch back on.

By contrast, I had the privilege to work in the past with the employees of Save-A-Lot, a hard discount, low price food retailer similar to Aldi. When you walked into the Save-A-Lot headquarters, you could feel all the energy and buzz around you. The power switch was on full power.

When you talked to the people, the conversation wasn’t around doing a job of pushing groceries at a profit. Instead, people talked in terms more similar to a religious revival. They talked about the pride they had in providing a higher standard of living to those who society tended to overlook. They talked about bringing “greater dignity” to the poor by packaging the food products to look like the brands the rich people ate. They not only wanted to feed these people, but improve their sense of self-worth. It was as if they weren’t grocers, but missionaries on a mission to save the poor from malnutrition and humiliation. They were united in purpose and focused on this larger, more personal motivation. And guess what? This power lead to great performance.

To achieve high levels of power, you need to supply high levels of purpose. This purpose needs to transcend just working for a paycheck. It requires tapping into the inner desires of your people. This concept seems to be taking on greater significance, as the Millennials who are now entering the workforce seem more focused on this greater purpose than the Baby Boomers they are replacing. If you do not provide a greater purpose, you will lose a lot of the power potential in the Millennial segment.

Strategic Planning can help by infusing a higher purpose into the Vision and Mission Statements. Planners can help ensure that strategic processes not only looks at managing performance, but also proactively manages power. They can make sure that power issues get sufficient attention.

Problem #2: Power Unlinked
Even if the company is full of power, performance may still suffer if there is insufficient connection between the power and the performance. My Christmas display only worked when plugged into the power source in the garage. Similarly, strategists need to connect the strategy to the power in the people.

Strategists need to show how the strategy is connected to the higher purpose. They need to show how achievement of the strategy not only improves performance, but improves achievement of the higher purpose. They need to show that putting effort behind the plan gets them closer to the higher purpose that doing something else.

Often, the best way to ensure that strategic goals are met is to take your focus off the goals and focus instead on ensuring that the organization is powerfully motivated to achieve the goals. This typically requires bonding with employees at a deeper level (than merely meeting the goals) by instilling a higher purpose into what people do. The higher their motivational power, the more likely the effort will be there to get the task accomplished. If you can connect that power to the task at hand, then the results will pretty much take care of themselves.

This deeper bonding can also work with customers. If consumers identify with your higher purpose, then they will want to support your efforts by purchasing from your company. This can lead to higher unit sales volumes at higher prices.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald Nanninga,

    You reminded me with this shinning post of an experience I can not forget. While visiting a photvoltaic-driven water pumps project all of a sudden water pumping stopped. The engineers questioned the performance by checking the pumps, the cells and a host of other things. Then I noticed that even though it was sunny day the solar cells were covered with trees that were irrigated by the pumped water. I moved the trees away and all of a sudden the system worked. Like you said performance needs power.