Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #476: Passion for What

Back in the late 1990s, I went to a seminar at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  There was a panel of experts talking about the future of connected consumer homes.

Most of the “panel of experts” were the geekiest of geeks, the nerdiest of nerds.  They each seemed to live in homes with about a half dozen satellite dishes on them and about four different sets of connectivity wires running through their houses.  They had all sorts of bizarre homemade networking devices trying to connect all their computers.  And they were predicting that eventually all consumers would have homes as geeky as theirs.

The audience was almost as geeky as the panel and were nodding their heads in approval.  That is, until the last panel member began to speak.

The last member was not geeky or nerdy.  He was a consumer marketer.  He had done consumer research and found that the average person would not put up with all of that geeky stuff.  The audience started to boo him walked out in disapproval.

Well, here we are, about 15 years later.  None of the geeky predictions came to pass and the marketer was right. 

The members of the so-called “panel of experts” were extremists in their enthusiasm for consumer electronics and technology.  It was their passion.   They knew all the jargon.  They were willing to devote all their spare time to learning the obscure technology behind it.  They could build their own computers and program them to do specialized tasks.

In other words, they were not normal.

These people mistakenly believed that eventually everyone else would have the same level of passion as they did for all this geeky stuff.  In other words, they felt that eventually, their odd behavior would become normal.  It did not.

As it turns out, the panel member who best understood the future of the connected home had no passion for the subject.  His expertise was in listening to the customer, who was saying something entirely different.

I’ve been around a lot of companies who are looking for passionate employees.  I’ve seen a lot of job advertisements looking to hire people with passion for the products the company was selling.  The rationale is that employees who are passionate about the product are better employees.

But is that really true?

That panel of experts was so passionate for their business that the members were blind to the fact that they were outliers in society.  They were so abnormal that they couldn’t understand normal people.  And normal people are the customers.  As a result, they completely missed the mark on helping businesses in the industry prepare for the future.

Instead, it was the one panel member who was not biased by personal passion (the marketer), who could accurately hear the customer and give sound advice.

This excessive passion can be particularly messy for strategic planners.  If they are too passionate for the business they are in, they can become biased extremists who are blind to the realities of normal people.  As a result, their strategic recommendations can be way off the mark and hurt the companies they work for. 

The principle here is that it is often better to hire people who have passion for their individual job skill than passion for the business where they apply that skill.  In other words, if you are in the green energy business, it is better to hire an accountant who is passionate about accounting than one who is passionate about green energy. 

There are many reasons why I believe this:

1. Improper Bias
In the story, we saw that the people with excessive passion had a biased and distorted view of the world.  Their extremism blinded them to what normal people are like.  They rejected consumer research (the facts), because it did not line up with their distorted, passionate viewpoint.  As a result, they became useless in helping companies address the needs of normal people.

I’ve seen this occur in multiple companies, where passionate extremist employees would promote all sorts of crazy ideas and bad strategies based on the notion that they found it appealing to their own passions.  Their rational was, “I would like that, so everyone else should like it, too.”

Unfortunately, the ultra-passionate segment of most businesses is quite small.  There are not enough of them to support these ideas.  Just because abnormally passionate people like something does not mean that normal people would also like it. 

And when you fill a company with passionate extremists, they start thinking that they are closer to normal than they really are, because all of their co-workers share the same biased extreme.  This leads to bad forecasts, bad strategies, and bad results.

Think about the battery-powered automotive industry.  Many of the companies were filled with employees who loved the idea of electric cars and thought everyone else should love them too.  So they came up with business models that were far too optimistic and now many of these businesses are going bankrupt.

2. The Charitable Cause Phenomenon
Although there are some great charitable organizations out there, I’d have to say that some of the worst-run businesses I’ve ever seen are charitable organizations.  Why?  Usually it is because the people running the business have more passion for the cause than for their individual job. 

They want to be a part of the cause, so they will do whatever job they can get to become a part of it.  That often means doing jobs for which they are not the most qualified.  Yes, passion can make up for some skill inadequacies, but often not enough to make many of them truly productive.  Just because their heart is in the right place doesn’t mean they are best qualified to get their job done.

Organizations need a lot of different skill-sets, from as mundane as janitorial or data entry to as sophisticated as a strategist, CEO, CIO, or COO, etc.  If people do not have lots of skills or passion for their individual task, then that task will not get done well.  If enough tasks don’t get done well, then the entire organization starts to fall apart.

That is why I like people’s primary passion to be around their assigned task, rather than the business.  That way, the people are happily excelling on that which they are assigned to do, because that is their love and passion.

3.  The Stockholm Syndrome
The Stockholm Syndrome is based on studies which show that people captured by terrorists will, over time, tend to become more sympathetic to the views of their captors. If normal people can start feeling more like the radical extremists who captured and tortured them, then I think normal people can start feeling good about the businesses which capture the bulk of their waking hours.

In other words, if you take a great accountant and put him or her into a green energy company, most over time will become more sympathetic to the green energy cause.  It is a natural consequence.

However, I don’t think the opposite is necessarily true.  If I take someone who loves green energy and is only moderately interested in accounting and put them into a green energy company, I don’t think they become a lot more passionate about being an accountant. 

Therefore, hire people who are passionate about their task, and you can train them to care about the business.  This will work out better than hiring people who love the business and then try to get them to love their individual job.

That’s why you commonly hear people in service businesses say that they look for people who love giving service (their job) and then train them in their business.  This works a lot better than finding people intimately in love with the business but have no desire to serve.

Great strategies rely on great insight and great execution.  Great insight and execution often are at odds with people who are excessively passionate about the business they are in.  First, their excessive passion biases them so they cannot see the realities of the normal world.  Therefore, their insights are inaccurately biased and subject to failure.  Second, people who are doing jobs based on their passion for the business rather than a passion for their job are not the best at doing their job, so execution suffers.  A better approach is to fill your business with people who are passionate for the skills of their individual task.  They will execute well on more accurate assessments of reality.

I have been a strategist at many companies where I did not have an excessive passion for the products being sold.  And I was proud of that.  I would tell people that this kept me from becoming too biased based on personal distortions.   I was forced to listen to the customer.  Second, my passion was for doing strategy, so they would get great strategies (and isn’t that what they hired me for in the first place?).


  1. Gerald Nanninga,
    Super ideas! I read almost all your posts and I hope I am not caught by the Stockholm Syndrome. I have passion for ideas and not for the author.
    We make many assumptions and we blindly tend to believe them. We forget the customer and what he desires. I would add be passionate to the skill AND the needs of customers. This is a formula for success.

    1. Ali Anani,

      You are correct. We need passion FOR the customer. My point is that this is different from having passion LIKE the customer. We are to love serving them, not being them.