Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #449: Scorekeepers Vs. Score Makers

Today, when you go to a sports arena they have those huge Jumbotrons showing you not only the score, but lots of high definition video in full color. It wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when scoreboards were only what their name implied—boards of wood with the score on them. When the score changed, a person had to physically take down the old painted number sign and put up a new number (by hand).

Those scorekeepers were kept pretty busy changing those signs during the game. But even though they worked hard to change the score on the board, the score keepers did not cause the score to change. They only reported on the action taking place on the field.

Sure, the scorekeeper put the larger score on the board, but if you wanted a larger score, you needed to have a coach with a great game plan and athletes who could execute it. Just because the scorekeeper was closest to the scoreboard does not mean he was closest to the action.

Don’t confuse the scorekeeper with the score makers. Don’t mistake them for being the coaches or the athletes. All he does is put the signs on the board.

Now it may seem silly that someone would confuse the scorekeeper with the score makers. Maybe it wouldn’t happen in sports, but it seems to happen quite frequently in business. And that isn’t silly; it’s tragic.

In a lot of companies, we have employees who are referred to as strategists. Their responsibilities may use terms such as managing strategic planning or strategic plans. But when you look closely at their job descriptions, they are really little more than scorekeepers.

But instead of a scoreboard, they have a spreadsheet. They use the spreadsheet to keep score. First, they keep track of the desired score—the goals of what the company wants to achieve. Then they keep track of the actual score—what the company actually achieves. Finally, they compare the two scores to show a variance score.

Then, if these so-called strategists have a big enough budget, they create fancy dashboards to place on all of the executives’ digital screens to show off the results. These dashboards have lots of fancy colors and dials and charts and traffic lights—sort of like those fancy Jumbotrons.

But as fancy as they all are, the root function is not much different than that old-time scoreboard operator. The primary function is just to keep track of the score.

The principle is that scorekeeping is not the same as strategic planning. And if the job description for your “strategists” is basically that of being a scorekeeper, then the task of true strategy is probably lacking—to the detriment of the company.

This is not to belittle the role of the scorekeeper. That is an important job. But it is not strategic planning. You need them both. Just as sporting events would be pretty worthless if only the scorekeepers showed up, all that business scorekeeping is pretty worthless if all the goals and measures being watched are not rooted in comprehensive strategic planning.

Asking the Tough Questions
Comprehensive strategic planning is not merely about coming up with a number. No, it tends to be more like an essay test. Great strategic planning has to answer a lot of tough questions, like:

Where are we going to play in the marketplace?

How are we going to win in that place?

What are the tradeoffs we are going to make to win?

What is the business model best suited for us to win?

What is missing in our resources to accomplish this? How will we obtain what is missing?

What threats are on the horizon which could change the way we need to play to win?

We talked more about the importance of answering these types of tough questions here and here. The key point is that until you answer these questions, there is no way of knowing how to score your progress. You need to know the rules for YOUR particular game before you can properly score it.

Otherwise, it would be like carefully measuring the speed at which you are driving when you have no idea of where to go. If you have not determined a destination and a path, then the speed at which you are driving is irrelevant. Getting nowhere faster isn’t much to be proud of.

To get a handle on where the profession of strategic planning is headed, I spend time looking at the job descriptions posted for “strategic” positions. It is fairly common to see lots of scorekeeping in the job description, but very little about tackling these tough questions. The qualifications tend to ask for people with expertise in accounting and spreadsheet modeling. They don’t tend to ask for people with expertise in positioning, business models, or how to win in a competitive marketplace.

I’m not so sure that accountants are necessarily the best qualified to answer these types of questions. And even if they were, they will be too busy with scorekeeping to spend much time focusing on the questions.

Don’t Merely Rely on the Operators
I’ve talked to some of the people who operate under these types of job descriptions. I ask them how all those tough questions get answered. What I hear is that the scorekeepers rely on the business operators for the bulk of the input. Unfortunately, there are many flaws in this approach.

First, the operators have a personal bias towards getting a large bonus. This can cloud their thinking regarding what a good score would be. A good score for an operator might be a beatable number, rather than the strategically correct number.

Second, operators tend to be highly invested in the status quo. That is their strength; it is what they know. Therefore, they tend to pick goals which are incremental extensions of the status quo. Strategically, the best solution might instead need to be a drastic change…perhaps even selling off that operation. Why would an operator volunteer to see his career path and platform for power go away?

Third, a lot of the best strategic moves are into new spaces. This is often referred to as the Blue Ocean strategy. By definition, new virgin spaces do not have an established operating base. Therefore, there is not an operating division naturally thinking about or fighting for this new opportunity.

Finally, operators tend to be overwhelmed by the Tyranny of the Immediate. In other words, a large percentage of their time is focused on the current crisis of the day. They are spending so much time putting out the current fire that they do not have enough time for the luxury of pondering the long-term. If you are not spending enough time pondering the big picture and the long term, then you will answer the questions in a narrow, short-term way. This leads to sub-optimization.

That is why companies need professional strategists who are not captive to these limitations. They do have the luxury of being able to focus on these big issues. That is, they have that luxury if they are not required to spend nearly 100% of their time as scorekeepers.

This is not to say that the viewpoint of operators is worthless. No, their insights are valuable to the process because they are on the front lines. But, it cannot stand alone. It needs to be balanced by the objectivity and big-picture thinking of a real strategist.

Keeping score is not the same thing as providing key insights into answering the tough questions of strategy. If you reposition strategic planning as little more than scorekeeping, then a key aspect of strategic planning will be missing. As a result, you may end up with great measurements of nearly random activity which does not lead to a great long-term destination.

Today’s modern spreadsheet and dashboard tools can turn into great toys which are fun to play with. They can start absorbing an ever larger percentage of your time. But let’s not forget that they are only more sophisticated scoreboards. And although they can be very useful, the action on the playing field is still more important than the sizzle of the scoreboard. Keep it all in its proper perspective. The essay test of the tough strategic questions may not have as much sizzle as a scoreboard, but it still needs focused attention.

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