Thursday, February 9, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #436: Distracted Driving

Today’s technology can do a lot of great things. It can entertain us, inform us and keep us connected with the ones we love. It can also cause problems if we combine all that technology with driving.

Between the technology gear we bring into the car, and the technology gear already in the dashboard of the car, we have all sorts of opportunities to become distracted from our driving. Here are a few statistics on the subject I found on a web page:

• Talking on a cell phone causes nearly 25% of car accidents.

• About 6,000 deaths and a half a million injuries are caused by distracted drivers in the US every year.

• Over 1/3 of drivers (37%) have sent or received text messages while driving, and 18% said they do it regularly.

• Forty-one percent of adult drivers have set or changed a GPS system while driving, and 21% do it “more frequently.”

• While teenagers are texting, they spend about 10 percent of the time outside the driving lane they’re supposed to be in.

• Talking on a cell phone while driving can make a young driver’s reaction time as slow as that of a 70-year-old.

• Answering a text takes away your attention for about five seconds. That is enough time to travel the length of a football field.

Yes, you can do a lot of really cool things in a car these days. The sound systems are great; the communication systems are great. The dashboards are full of interesting things to look at and play with. But for safety’s sake, perhaps we should take the wheels off the car and enjoy all this stuff while sitting still in our garage.

Better yet, let’s remember that the best screen in the car is not on your smart device or your dashboard, but the WINDSHIELD!

Cars aren’t the only places full of cool technology. So is today’s workplace. A lot of this technology can be very useful. However, like in the car, much of this technology can also be distracting.

Here are some work-related statistics:

• Nielsen’s quarterly Three Screen Report on U.S. media usage showed that approximately 44 percent of all online video is being viewed in the workplace.

• More than 21 million Americans – or 29 percent of working adults – now access adult websites from work computers.

• Some employees said they accessed their Facebook accounts as much as two hours a day on the job, with 87 percent of those surveyed admitting that they had no clear business reason for using the social network.

• An oft quoted study says that Facebook reduces office productivity by 1.5% overall.

As disturbing as this might be, I’m even more concerned with the official gadgetry produced by the company itself. Just as cars provide cool distractions on the dashboard, many companies have their own “dashboard” devices. These company dashboards are software applications which show lots of cool performance indicators. Like a car dashboard, they provide data to let you know how you are doing. And like a car dashboard, this information can be useful.

However, there is a lot more to driving than just staring at the dashboard. You need to look out the windshield and see the world you’re driving in. The same is true for strategists. It can be very dangerous if the focus at the company is too much towards the internal dashboard and not enough looking at the external world through a strategic “windshield.”

The principle here is that it is already difficult enough to get companies focused on the long term, given all the near-term distractions. Let’s not allow a preoccupation with cool gadgets and company dashboards contribute to that distraction.

Yes, company dashboards can be a useful tool, especially to keep day to day operations on track. But if a strategist’s time is distracted by focusing too much on dashboards, then their work will suffer, increasing the likelihood of a company “accident.”

One of the key strategic problems with most dashboards is that they tend to focus on performance. They are typically a tool which looks at how well a company is performing on Key Performance Indicators (KPI).

Now, at first one might think that it is good for a strategist to focus on performance and KPIs. However, I see four major problems if performance is the primary focus of a strategist.

1) Performance Focuses on the Score, Not the Game Plan
As I’ve mentioned in prior blogs (here, here, and here), outcomes are like the score of a sporting event. They can tell you if you are winning, but they are worthless at telling you how to win. Yelling at the scoreboard won’t change the score. Yelling at your people to score more points is worthless advice. If a coach stares at the scoreboard (the outcomes) during the game instead of focusing on what’s happening on the playing field, they become a fairly worthless coach.

Even if you know you are losing, that does not mean you know how to fix the problem. The score provides virtually no insight into why you are losing or how to change the score’s direction. It is just a number.

If you want to win, you need to focus on the clipboard where you write up the winning game plans. Games are won by having a superior game plan that is properly executed. That is where the strategic focus needs to be.

By the time you know the score of a game, it is too late to affect its outcome. But if, instead, you focus on the game plan, you’ll pretty much know what the score will be before the game is over, and have time to still influence the outcome with a revised game plan.

2) Performance Tends to Ignore the Real Battleground for Success
Customers act based on the way they think. Therefore, if you want them to act in a particular way, you need to first get them to think in a particular way. Hence, the key battleground for success takes place in the minds of your consumers.

Most company dashboards, if they measure customers at all, measure what they do (like “sales”), not how they think. As a result, the dashboards are ignoring the key battleground for success.

In a prior blog, we talked about the difference between “being” and “doing.” Strategic positions are about what you want to BE—how you are defined in the mind of the customer. Dashboards are about DO—what has already happened to your company.

If you want to improve strategically, you need to focus on the BE; you need to probe the consumer’s mind to find out if you are becoming properly positioned in the key battleground. This would be far better information to focus on than the outcomes of a dashboard.

3) Strategic Planning is Most Valuable at Times of Discontinuity
Dashboards are based on tracking past performance over time. The implied assumption is that the past is the best indicator of the future. Yet we all know that the world is full of change. The future often has little resemblance to the past. There is too much discontinuity.

That is why one of the chief values of strategy is to look forward—to anticipate future discontinuity and formulate a plan in advance to prepare for and take advantage of that discontinuity.

By the time a dashboard displays discontinuity, it is often too late to properly react. The change has already occurred. All the dashboard can do at that point is track precisely how quickly the discontinuity is destroying the company.

If you want to anticipate and prepare for discontinuity, you need to be looking up out the windshield rather than looking down at the dashboard gadget.

4) Performance Tends to Denigrate Strategic Planning into a Financial Scorekeeper Role
If the determination and measurement of KPIs becomes the primary responsibility of strategic planning, then the role of strategic planning becomes little more than that of a scorekeeper.

Just because a person keeps score does not mean they influence the score. In their new stadium, the Dallas Cowboys football team has one of the most sophisticated scoreboards in the world. But it hasn’t helped them win more games or get to a championship.

There has been a trend to redefine strategic planning as “Financial Planning & Analysis” and make it a small sub-department in Finance. The role is little more than that of a scorekeeper, with the dashboard being their scoreboard.

You don’t make great strategic leaps into the future by keeping track of the past. Great insights come from looking ahead and looking beyond today’s results. But if the new objective for strategists is to look for KPI performance variances (instead of looking ahead), then they are no longer doing true strategic work. By redefining the role, this great value is being taken away.

It is hard to get companies to focus long term, because the “tyranny of the immediate” pressures executives to focus on the crisis of the day. That is why strategic planners are so valuable…they provide a longer term balance. However, if the strategists are primarily focused on measuring KPIs, then they get caught up in the tyranny of the immediate as well. The balance is lost; and much of their value is lost. And the company suffers.

The irony is that if you want better future outcomes, the best methodology is to not focus on prior outcomes. Instead, focus on the factors which influence the future. And those are rarely found on dashboards.

A strategist looking down at a dashboard is like a teen looking at a text while driving. Do I hear a crash?

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