Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #465: Put Another Log on the Fire

One time while camping I began cooking dinner on a campfire.  The fire was nice and hot, so I thought cooking would be easy.  I filled a pot with some soup and put it on the fire.

The fire was so hot that it burned a hole in the bottom of the pan.  Not only did I lose my dinner as the soup fell through the hole, I also lost my fire which was doused by the soup.

The purpose of a campfire is to provide light and heat for your camp.  This needs to be managed.  If the campfire gets too large and too hot, it is no longer useful for cooking and you cannot get near it to warm yourself.  It also can become very dangerous and quickly get out of control, perhaps burning down your campsite and the surrounding forest.

Conversely, if the fire is ignored and allowed to go out, then it takes forever to restart the fire and get it back to a reasonable size.  In the mean time, it is cold and dark.  And if you run out of matches, you may never get the fire restarted.
In my story, I mismanaged both extremes—I got the fire too hot to cook, which caused the fire to go out when the soup fell through the hole.  And the wet logs didn’t want to re-light.

In the business world, you can think of the logs as being like investments in the business and the fire as being like the financial output of the business.  If you don’t manage these inputs and outputs properly, you can end up in a mess, just like I did with my campfire.

The principle here is that future growth should be managed in relationship to the current situation.  In other words, you are more likely to have a strong future if it is leveraged off the current strengths.  We can see how to do that by looking at the lessons of the campfire.

Lesson #1: All Fires Left Without New Fuel Eventually Die
There is only so much fire potential in a log.  Eventually, it will be completely consumed by the current fire and no longer produce additional fire.  Therefore, if you do not want the fire to go out, you have to keep adding new logs to the fire.

The same is true in business.  Like each particular log, each particular business strategic initiative eventually fails.   Times change; customers change; competition changes; technology changes; the environment changes.  New, superior solutions for the evolving customer needs make your old strategic initiative obsolete.  It no longer provides any financial output (the flame goes out).

As a result, you cannot just sit back and enjoy the success of today.  Even a perfect campfire right now will eventually go out if you do not add logs to it.  Similarly, perfect financial output today does not guarantee that it will go on forever.  You have to keep investing in the business (adding more logs).  Otherwise the business will die.
That investment can take two forms.  First, you need to invest in maintenance and upkeep.  As a lifelong retailer, I know what happens if you do not reinvest in the look of your store.  Eventually, it becomes so ugly and worn out that customers refuse to come back.  The fire goes out.  

Second, you need to invest in modifications to your business in order to keep it relevant to the changing marketplace.  

Remember, if you tie the success of your business to a single initiative, your business will die when the original logs of investment in that initiative are spent.  If you want your business to last beyond that, you need to keep investing in the business.

Lesson #2: Big Logs Require a Big Fire to Ignite
Big logs do not automatically combust into flame.  If you want to get a big log lit, you have to stick it in a place where a big fire already exists.  It then uses the current flames from the older fire to start the process of creating its own flames.

The same is true in business.  It is a lot easier to get a new initiative off the ground and running successfully if it can leverage off the power already inherent in the base business.  That power can come from strong customer relationships, a great distribution network, economies of scale from the base business, and so on.  The new business can “borrow” these strengths just as a fresh log “borrows” the flames of the old fire to get going.

This implies two things.  First, the best time to invest in the future is when you are still strong in the present.  If you wait until the flames go out before adding the new logs, the new logs won’t ignite.  You have to add the new logs while the old flame is still strong if you want them to quickly take off.

Although this is common sense with fires, this idea is often ignored in the business world.  In retail, I saw executives wait until people no longer wanted to shop a store before remodeling it.  By then it was too late (the fire had gone out).  Since customers no longer patronized the store, they did not see the improvements   They had already moved on to someone else’s store.  It was a wasted investment which didn’t catch on.  No, the best time for that remodel would have been while the customers were still in the store and had a positive feeling towards that store.  Then they would have seen the improvements and then felt even more positive about that store.  

For a more dramatic example, think of Kodak.  It stayed with the analog film “logs” way too long—all the way until their flame was nearly extinguished—before adding on the digital “logs.”  It was too late.  There was not enough power in the weakened core to ignite the new business. It never caught fire.  Instead, the digital fire belonged to the competition. 

Had Kodak made the transition to digital when they were at the peak of analog power and still had a strong brand and consumer franchise (i.e., when their fire was still strong), those digital logs would have had a better chance of catching on.  

The reason for waiting too long to invest in the future is usually a fear of cannibalizing the current core business.  But do we worry about cannibalizing the old logs of a fire when putting a new log on top of them?  No.  We understand that those old logs are going to die anyway and that they are most useful to perpetuating the flame if you put a log on them while they are still strong.  And besides, the goal is not to optimize a single log, but to optimize the entire campfire.  So we toss the new log on without a second thought. 

We should have a similar attitude in business.  Assume cannibalization is going to occur anyway (either by us or by someone else).  So if it is going to die anyway, it may as well be us to gets the future business.  And we are more likely to get it if we put the log of the future on now, when the flame of the current business is still strong enough to ignite it.  Leverage your strengths while they are still strong.

The second implication is this:  just tossing a log near the current fire won’t do anything.  It will just lie there unlit, even if the other fire is still blazing strongly, because the new log does not touch the current flame.  This is what happens when we invest in a future that does not leverage the current strengths.  It there is no fit with the core, it cannot leverage the flame from the core.  It is like trying to start a completely new fire next to the old one. 

And we all know how hard it is to start a new fire.  You cannot start with big logs.  You have to start with small sticks and easily ignitable tinder.  Then you can gradually increase the size of the sticks over time (if the small fire does not go out—which is common).  Eventually, you might be able to get that new fire to support a big log.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to leverage the fire you already have?  So as you invest in the future, find a future that can leverage what you already have built.  It makes the chance of it taking off quickly more likely.   Don’t be lured to invest in the hot new thing just because it is a hot new thing.  If it has nothing to do with your core, you bring no advantage.  You are starting a new fire from scratch.  You will most likely lose out to others who bring an advantage to the business.

Lesson #3: Managing Multiple Fires Can Be Difficult
This leads to the next point.  It is easier to manage one fire than two.  With two fires, one can become distracted and lose control of the situation.  This can lead to one of the fires either going out or burning up the camp.

That is why the principle of focus is so important in business.  Focus eliminates the distractions and allows you to excel at the point of focus.  It is better to have one great fire which goes on forever through careful, focused management than a handful of unrelated flames that are weak and always going out.

Lesson #4: Don’t Use Up Your Logs Too Quickly
If you toss too many logs on a fire too quickly, two negative consequences can occur.  First, you can lose control of the fire.  It becomes too hot to use and may engulf your entire campsite in flames.  Second, it uses up your logs too quickly, so you cannot keep the fire going a long time.
In business, there are also negative consequences to investing too much, too fast.  You can lose flexibility because all the resources are committed up front.  And if you invest faster than your company can manage it, you lose control of the business.  Instead, invest wisely for the optimum long-term results.

Managing a business is like managing a fire.  To keep the fire burning successfully for a long time, you need to:

a) Put new logs of investment on the fire while the old flame is still strong.
b) Make sure the new logs can leverage off the strengths of the old flame by having strategic fit.
c) Make sure you don’t put too many logs of investment on too quickly (faster than you can manage).

Fires are fun to watch, but if all you do is watch, then the fire will go out. 


  1. Gerald Nanninga,
    I love your metaphor: it is creative, applicable, extensible and easy to remember.
    I may add that wet logs need more time to ignite or even they may distinguish the firing business. Likewise; if too much ashes are left they may contaminate the fire and may be blown off easily to spoil your fire. Businesses must remove the ashes of old businesses to keep the fire glowing.
    I hope I am right

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