Monday, May 7, 2012
Strategic Planning Analogy #450: Pushing the String
Here’s an experiment. Take a long string and stretch it out on the floor. Go to one end of the string and try to push the string across the floor. That effort will essentially be a failure.
Now re-stretch the string on the floor. Go to one end of the string and try to pull it across the floor. This should be a great success.
Conclusion: It is much easier to pull a string across the floor than to push it.
What was the difference between pulling a string (success) and pushing a string (failure)? When you pull a string, you are in front of the string. When you push a string, you are behind it.
You organization is like a string. Strategic planning tries to move an organization to a better place, sort of like trying to get a string across the floor. Just as getting in front of a string (to pull) is the best way to move the string, getting a strategy in the hands of the person in front of the organization is the best way to get the organization to a better place.
By definition, followers need leaders up in front. Strategic leadership, then, is a pre-requisite to strategic followership. Trying to move the organization from another position is far more difficult.
The principle here is that strategic planners are not typically positioned at the front-most end of the organization. Therefore, if strategic planners want to effectively move the organization forward, they need to work through those people who are at the front and capable of pulling the string—top management. This becomes their primary audience.
Like it or not, strategists are not in front of the string. In most cases, they are usually further down the ladder. It is common for them to report to a CFO, who then reports to a CEO. Without the mantle of top leadership, strategists cannot directly pull the string.
If the primary force for change in an organization is the strategist, then the effort to move the organization is more like trying to push the string. The string will not respond as desired, because the effort is coming from too far back in the organization.
Mistake #1: Having the Strategist Lead
There are many reasons why having strategist lead the strategy movement is sub-optimal. First, consider the audience—the organization. They will ask themselves a few questions:
1) If this is the person we should be following, then why aren’t they in a position of leadership?
2) Since they are not the leader, what gives them the right to ask me to follow?
3) If this were really important, wouldn’t the real leader be leading us?
They will think: I’ve got enough responsibilities on my plate handed down from my direct superiors to worry about. Why worry about the ranting of someone who has no direct control over me?
Therefore, the organization will not wholeheartedly follow the strategist. It will be like trying to push a string.
Now think of it from the position of the real leader of the organization. Leadership from anywhere else can be seen as a threat to their power. Most leaders don’t like potential threats to their power. Consequently, they will not abdicate enough power to the strategist to really be able to effectively pull the string on their own. Others in the organization will see that the power has not been handed down to the strategist. Therefore, the strategist will not have enough power to pull the string. They can only push.
Mistake #2: Having the Strategist Merely Keep Score
So if the strategist cannot lead, should we just take them out of the leadership equation? No. As we’ve talked about many other times in these blogs, the strategist provides an important leadership function. They can provide a unique perspective which can be gained almost nowhere else, because:
1) Strategists are the least vested in the status quo. Therefore, they can most objectively look at the status quo versus alternatives.
2) Strategists are the least captive to the “Tyranny of the Immediate,” those daily crises that tend to capture the immediate attention of the operators of the business. This allows the strategist to focus on long-term implications more than anyone else.
3) Strategists spend the most time focused on understanding the big picture (and where it is heading). They can look for the holes in the marketplace yet to be filled. As a result, they can offer an important perspective not available elsewhere.
Therefore, it is mistake to lower the position of the strategist to little more than a mere scorekeeper (as we saw in the prior blog). To do so will be to lose the power of these insights.
Solution: Become the Strategy Whisperer
So how do we take advantage of the needed leadership of the strategist while understanding they do not have enough leadership power to pull the string? I refer to it as becoming the “Strategy Whisperer.”
The idea is based off of the book The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans (which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford). The book and movie made popular a form of horse training known as “natural horsemanship.”
And this is an effective analogy for strategists. Their goal is not to overpower the leaders of the organization. The task is not to break the will of the leader. No, the strategist needs to come to the leaders showing great respect for their power. Rather than posing as a threat to the leader, the strategist merely seeks mutual respect in return. And once gaining that non-threatening respect, the strategist can then whisper into the leader’s ear what he or she needs to hear from the unique perspective of the strategist.
As a result, the leader is still the unquestioned leader. Their power to pull the string is not threatened by the presence of the strategist. Yet, because the leader is listening to the whispering of the strategist, the leader is pulling the string in a direction which is more strategically correct.
The Strategy Whisperer approach may not come naturally to the strategist, especially if the strategist wants to be the one with the hands on the string. But if you want to effectively help move the company, this can be the best approach.
The best way to move a company in the proper strategic direction is to get the leader of the organization to want to lead the organization in that direction. This requires positioning the strategist as far more than just a scorekeeper, but far less than a threat to the power of the leader. The optimal spot is that of a Strategy Whisperer—a respected advisor who has the ear of the leader.
It’s better to have your hand on the shoulder of the real leader (so you can whisper in his/her ear) and let them effectively pull the string in your desired direction than to insist that the string be put in your hand and only be able to ineffectively push it.