Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #464: The Blue Screen of Death

This past week has been very frustrating for me.  My computer was getting slower and slower.  Eventually, it kept coming to a complete stop.  The screen would go completely blank (the blue screen of death) and the disk drive wouldn’t stop whirring away. 

I had to keep manually stopping the operation without going through a normal shutdown (Windows doesn’t like that).

Usually, I could get a fair amount of work done in the first hour after re-booting, so I used that time to go online to find out how to fix the problem.  What I learned was that my computer was filled with thousands upon thousands of little glitches which had developed over time.  It was nothing major; just so many little problems that the computer wouldn’t work anymore.

So I downloaded a program to clean up the bulk of the mess.  Then I slowly fixed all the remaining errors one by one.  Now my computer works fine again.

A similar type of frustration can occur in strategic planning.  You may have a great strategic vision and a great plan to bring it to life.  However, once the plan is put into motion, it seems like nothing is happening.  Although it may have appeared like progress was being made at the start, that progress slows down over time.  Everything related to implementation slows until it seems like all progress has stopped.  You have the strategic equivalent of the blue screen of death—a strategy which no longer functions.

Many articles have been written about strategic implementation (including many of my own blogs).  Most of these articles deal with major issues, such as:

a) Resistance to change;

b) Dealing with those who try to sabotage the strategy because it hurts their power base;

c) Political struggles.

These are major roadblocks by people proactively resisting the strategy.  This is important stuff.  But it may not be the most important roadblock.

As we saw with my computer, the slowdown was not caused by a few major attempts by others to proactively destroy my machine.   No, it was thousands of little glitches which innocently crept in while I was doing millions of little tasks which had no malicious intent. 

In the same way, most strategic initiatives grind to a halt not because of a major malicious act, but because thousands of little barriers creep in while thousands of employees just try to innocently do their jobs.  No one barrier is enough to halt the strategy, but the accumulation of thousands of these acts eventually clogs the system and prevents implementation.

Think of it like this.  I could destroy my computer by attacking it with a hammer.  I could also destroy my computer by innocently eating cookies while I worked.  Only a few cookie crumbs would innocently fall into the keyboard from each cookie eaten.  However, after eating thousands of cookies, there could be so many crumbs in the keyboard that it no longer works. 
This latter problem is common in strategy.  While we are working to prevent someone from taking a hammer to the strategy, we fail to see all the little crumbs building up.  Right under our noses, the factors causing the strategy to fail are building up.  And although this attack is more innocent, the result is still the same.

The principle here is that strategic implementation does not need malicious resistance to slow it down.  It just needs to allow tiny barriers to accumulate.  Therefore, have a plan to prevent this accumulation.

If you want to keep a computer running smoothly, two actions are recommended.  First, install a program that tries to block errors from getting into your system.  Second, check and clean up your system on a regular basis, before the errors get to the point where they seriously impact performance. 

Let’s see how to apply this to strategy implementation.

1) Identifying How The Errors Creep In
Two types of errors can creep into a company to prevent implementation.  I call them the errors of dilution and thickening.

Dilution occurs when the strong imperatives of strategy are weakened by compromise.  It comes about like this: Winning strategies typically emphasize owning a position of leadership in a particular area.  It is the place where your business can claim to be the best.  This could be one of a number of things, like best price, highest quality, most service, most authentic, most prestigious, most entertaining, best tasting, and so on.  It is this point of superiority which provides your reason for existing—your path to winning.

To attain and retain that point of superiority requires a diligent focus on improving that point of superiority.  Trade-offs must be made to reduce effort in other areas in order to put required resources in the desired area.

Unfortunately, in the small everyday decisions of business, these trade-offs can sometimes be ignored.  Small decisions may be made which move the company away from this focus.  It may be a decision to vary slightly from the focus to pocket a small amount of business near-term, to meet this month’s quota, or the desire to broaden one’s appeal a little bit.  These look like small compromises—just small, temporary departures from the long-term focus to perhaps make a small immediate gain.  But do enough of these small compromises and you end up with one big departure from the desired path.

The result is that these compromises dilute one’s effectiveness at the desired point of superiority.  You become less superior where you need to be most superior.  You confuse the customer as to what you stand for.  Or those actions may actually destroy your position.  Toyota’s point of superiority had been reliability, but it got diluted by a series of actions to broaden the range, increase geographic distribution and lower costs.   The accumulation of these acts severely hurt Toyota’s reliability image in 2011.   Like with my computer, this accumulation of dilution slowed things down for Toyota.  They needed to stop and “re-boot” their strategy.

Besides dilution, one can slow down the strategy through thickening.  This is the process of adding so much additional activity to the agenda that the strategy part of the agenda loses emphasis and priority.  It’s one thing for a company to focus on three major goals.  It is quite another to simultaneously focus on 35 major goals. 

Once everything becomes important, then effectively nothing becomes important.  There is no priority to the strategic path.  A little effort in 35 different directions means no great effort in any direction.  No single extra task breaks down the process, but over time the accumulation will.  Pouring in all these extra tasks is like pouring molasses into the river.  After awhile, so much molasses will be in the river that it doesn’t flow any more (it’s gotten too thick).  Progress my computer.

2) Having a Plan to Clean Out the Errors
So how do we clean out the errors of dilution (through compromise) and thickening (through added tasks)?

Dilution needs to be attacked two ways.  First, strategic implications need to be brought down from the ivory towers to where everyday decisions are made.  Before making every, and I mean every decision all over the company, first ask yourself which answer moves you closer to your point of superiority.  Realize that every decision can compromise your position and make sure you understand the ramifications of such a compromise on your ability to hold your position of strength.  This needs to become a natural activity done all the time, modeled by top management.

Second, one needs to constantly monitor where one stands with the customer regarding their point of superiority.  Is the perception increasing or decreasing.  If the position is decreasing, then one needs to quickly root out the diluting activities and eliminate them.  

Regarding thickening, one needs to constantly monitor the size of the list of priorities and the number of tasks expected.  Keep the list small.  The idea should be something like for each new priority added, an old one needs to be eliminated.  If you have a lot of things you want to do, do them sequentially rather than simultaneously.  In other words, after priorities are accomplished, take them off the list and replace them with new ones. 

And finally, step back every once in awhile to reassess how many errors have crept into your system.  Just as the experts tell you to run a clean-up program on your computer once a week or once a month, companies should do a formalized clean-up effort on a regular basis—perhaps twice a year.  This is a formalized time to look for ways to cut out excess tasks and diluting compromise practices.

Strategic efforts often fail not from large malicious acts, but from an accumulation of small innocent acts that eventually slow down progress to a halt.  These acts tend to slow down progress by either diluting one’s focus (through compromise) or overburdening you with too many other tasks competing for your attention (called thickening).  To stop this from happening, one needs to put in place programs to attack dilution and thickening on a continual basis, like how an antivirus program works on a computer.  Then one needs to periodically focus on cleaning up any dilution or thickening which crept in anyway (like running a computer clean-up program).

Remember, it’s easier to fix all these problems when the threat is still low.  If you wait too long, you end up like I was with my computer—a machine that crashed all the time and could do nothing.

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