Monday, February 13, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #437: Eliminate Stop Signs

Shortly after receiving my driver’s license, I caused an accident. As a result, I had to go to traffic court.

In the case prior to mine, a lady was accused of refusing to obey a stop sign. She pleaded not guilty. Her defense was that she indeed made a quick stop at the stop sign before proceeding.

The court then pointed out that immediately after her “stop”, she drove into oncoming traffic and caused an accident.

The judge asked her if she looked both ways to see if it was clear before proceeding from the stop. She said no. She just stopped as the sign required and immediately drove ahead, never taking the time to see if it was okay to proceed.

Although she technically stopped, the judge found her guilty.

We live in a fast-paced world. Like the lady in traffic court, we don’t want to waste a lot of time stopping. We want to just rush down the road. As a result, stop signs do not always get the respect they deserve.

Many executives see strategic planning as similar to those stop signs. Strategists are the people seen as always saying “Stop!” They’re always talking about being at a strategic crossroad, where we need to stop and determine which path to take. Either that, or strategists are seen as the ones who want to slow down the day-to-day decisions by forcing people to take the time to first examine the long-term implications of that decision.

Out of courtesy, these executives may momentarily give a token nod to strategy. But like the lady in traffic court, they immediately resume their fast pace. And because they did not take the time to carefully examine the ramifications of their actions, these executives cause a corporate accident.

As long as strategists are viewed as stop signs, they will not get the respect they deserve…and those accidents will occur. To gain respect, and reduce the accidents, I suggest that strategists reposition themselves as expressway builders—the ones helping you to avoid stop signs.

The principle here has to do with speed. Companies want to move quickly. If you are viewed as something which slows a company down, then you are not seen favorably. However, if you viewed as one who helps the company move faster, then your image and stature improves.

Bad Assumptions About Strategic Planning
Therefore, if strategists want to make a major impact on a corporation, it helps if they are viewed as an area which helps companies move faster. However, the current image of strategy is often the opposite. The negative rap against strategy in this area usually goes something like this:

1) Building long-term strategies takes a lot of time.

2) The world is moving too fast and too unpredictably.

3) As a result of rapid change, long term plans are almost immediately obsolete (so you have to waste a lot of time constantly updating them).

4) As a result of unpredictability, you have to go with your gut and seize the opportunity of the moment. If you waste a lot of time in strategic analysis, you’ll miss out on that short window of opportunity.

5) Therefore, strategy should not be taken very seriously. It’s a bad stop sign that you want to drive through.

Good Assumptions About Strategic Planning
However, I believe this point of view can be rejected and replaced by one where strategists are seen as one’s allies in maintaining speed. The replacement line of reasoning would go something like this.

1) The world is moving fast and unpredictably.

2) The faster and more unpredictable the world is, the more often one has to adjust. The number of decisions to be made increases dramatically. Every street you drive by is potentially an opportunity to change course in a world of rapid change.

3) In the absence of context, thousands of people making thousands of rapid decisions leads to chaos. Precious time is wasted because the company is not unified and moving together down the same path.

4) Without a map, every road looks about the same. It takes longer to decide which road to take at every intersection if you have no guidance about which roads are better.

5) Strategic planning can fix all these problems by providing the context and the map. All of those decisions are easier and faster to make when you have a strategic context. The context help people focus on what is most important. They help a company understand what their winning formula is. This makes all those decisions easier. All you have to do is move in the direction which reinforces the context.

6) With a roadmap to the future, every path is not treated equally. There is a preferred path. You only need to deviate on rare occasions. If you use strategic planning to debate the whole path upfront once, you save a lot of wasted time debating what to do at every single intersection.

7) Without the context and the map, you are always reacting to what is going on around you. You are a follower, not a leader. Followers have to keep adjusting to all the changes in the rules set by the leaders. By contrast, if you are the leader setting the rules, then you are less subjected to the world around you. Instead of wasting time adjusting to the world, the world is wasting time trying to adjust to you.

As Peter Drucker put it, “The best way to predict the future is to create the future.” Building a strategy to create the future allows you to move forward quickly because you don’t waste as much time predicting or reacting.

Example: Apple
Apple has moved very quickly in a very fast paced part of the economy. My contention is that their success in moving quickly has a lot to do with their having a solid context and roadmap.

Everyone at Apple understands the context. They are to develop cool, elegant, intuitive, seamless systems in the consumer electronics space. By understanding that context, decision making could be made easier and faster. Whenever a decision needed to be made, the answer was to move in the direction which made things cooler, more elegant, more intuitive, or more seamless. And these decisions applied to the whole system—the hardware, the software, the content, the partners, the selling environment.

This context became the non-negotiable winning position for Apple. The time for debate was over. Now all the energy could be focused on moving forward to bring it alive.

The roadmap was also fairly clear. The idea was to build closed systems around aspects of a cool lifestyle. As time passed, the complexity of those systems would increase, but the intuitive elegance would remain. First music, then mobile, then pads, then clouds. Ever more useful, ever more portable, ever more powerful.

By knowing the roadmap, Apple could focus on great execution (instead of endless arguing on what to execute). They were able to take the lead and set the rules everyone else had to follow. By making the rules, they were not victims of the rules. They could move quickly by acting, rather than reacting.

Building Expressways
If strategic planners help companies develop their context and roadmaps, then they are actually eliminating stop signs. The road filled with stop signs is replaced by an expressway which has no stop signs. All of those little time-consuming decisions at each intersection can be sped by, because you already have the big decisions made (through strategic planning). The big decisions help to quickly point out the way to resolve the little decisions (go in the direction of the big decision).

If you can convince management that doing strategic planning actually saves time by getting you off the back roads an onto an expressway, then you will be able to positively influence a company and help steer them away from strategic accidents.

In a rapidly changing world, strategic planning does not become obsolete. Instead, it becomes even more critical. It provides the context and the roadmap, so that you can more easily and more quickly determine which path to take amongst all that change.

Are you focusing your efforts on things which make it easier to deal with change or harder to deal with change? The answer to this question will help determine your status and power within the organization.

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