Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #492: Straight Line Nearsightedness

Imagine two executives who were told to get from point A to point B. The first executive wanted to be very efficient in his task. He knew that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, so he drew a straight line between points A & B.  “This straight line,” said the first executive, “will be my path to success.”

Unfortunately, his straight line was drawn directly through the middle of a large zoo. This posed many challenges to his straight line approach. Following the line, this executive first had to find a way to break into a lions’ cage. Then he had to find a way to get around the man-eating lions in that cage without being eaten. Then he had to find a way out of the lion’s cage on the other side. This process was repeated as he had to get through the cages of poisonous snakes, hungry crocodiles, and other wild beasts.

These challenges were very difficult, but each time, the first executive found a workable solution.

As the first executive reached point B on the other side of the zoo, he was very proud of himself.  He thought, “I’m an excellent executive. I found the shortest path to point B. Then I successfully found an answer to every challenge on that path. I overcame every obstacle and reached my destination without any serious injuries. My boss will call me a hero.”      

However, there was nobody waiting for this first executive when he got to point B.  He later found out that the second executive had gotten to point B days earlier.  What she had done was called a taxi and had the taxi driver drive around the zoo to the other side.  It took less than an hour. 

The first executive did get a response from his boss, but it was not to be called a hero.  Instead, his boss called him an idiot, told him he was fired and that he would have to personally pay for all the damages he made to the zoo.

The first executive considered himself to be a hero because of all the great accomplishments he performed. He made a quick decision on finding the shortest path and then found solutions to all of the problems along that path. And since they were difficult and dangerous problems, his ability to solve them without injury was that much more remarkable. Yes, he had quite the long list of impressive achievements.

Yet, his boss called him an idiot. Why? Because it was an expense, destructive and excessively time-consuming way to get to Point B. The goal was not to achieve a long list of impressive feats of management, but to quickly and efficiently get to the other side of the zoo. That could be done with a quick taxi ride.

I see a similar type of occurrence in the world of strategic planning. We set a strategic goal to get from point A to point B. Then we set loose the executives to go down that path. Once the executives get moving along the path, they lose sight of the big picture and only see the obstacles immediately in front of them. Then, one by one, they tackle each of those daily obstacles.

The big picture gets lost while attention moves to the obstacles immediately in front of us. At the moment each obstacle is conquered, we may feel like a hero. But all that “heroic” effort is really a waste of time, because it is unnecessary,

That first executive could have saved a lot of time and effort by waking around those cages rather than trying to go through them. Or better yet, he could have followed the second executive’s approach and just taken a cab around the zoo. It may make for a much less impressive list of accomplishments, but the big strategic goal is accomplished a whole lot faster and easier.

The principle here is that the importance of the task is often correlated to distance. In other words, achieving the big strategic goals off in the distance are usually far more important to the ultimate success of the business than conquering the crisis of the day. Yet in practice, we tend to operate in the opposite direction. We spend most of our time tackling the challenge immediately in front of us. Like that first executive, we get so intent on finding a way through the lions’ cage in front of us that we miss the quick and easy path to the bigger goal on the other side of the zoo.

We can call it nearsightedness, because the executives lose site of the distant goal and can only see the challenge immediately in front of them. In the past, I have referred to it as the tyranny of the immediate.  The immediate becomes our master and tortures us into submitting to its wishes rather than freeing us to achieve the larger, more distant (and more important) goal.

So how can we minimize activities like the first executive in the story and may our executives act more like the second executive? Here are some suggestions.

1.  Keep the Distance Continually in View
When executives become nearsighted, we need to help them by giving them corrective vision so that they can see the bigger goal in the distance all the time. If the only time your company focuses on the distant goal is at an annual off-site meeting, then the battle is lost. The near-term challenge will win the daily battle for the limited executive’s time. The distant goal will be forgotten until the next year’s annual meeting, when people wonder why they are no closer to the goal.

There are several ways to get the distant goal clearly visible on a daily basis.  For example, you can change the culture so that a simple question is asked at EVERY meeting and when important daily decisions are made.  That question is this: Does your decision get us closer to achieving our big goal or not?  Or perhaps it can be worded like this:  What decision gets us faster to where we want to ultimately be?

Another way to do it is by linking the goal to a position or philosophy.  For example, if your goal is to win via innovation, you can look at daily decisions about what to tackle as a choice to focus on those activities which most support innovation. 

I was very impressed when I recently visited the Walmart headquarters.  When I listened in on how daily decisions were being made, it was obvious that the long term goals, positions and philosophies were deeply ingrained into the process.  Every decision seemed to go through the same filter:  Is this going to help Walmart bring lower prices to their targeted consumers so that they live better lives on their limited incomes?  The challenge of the day did not seem to overpower the drive to spend time on what was most critical to their long term success.

So be a pest and make sure the big vision become imbedded in the daily grind.

2. Watch What You Reward
We like to reward “heroic” levels of effort which overcome huge challenges.  It’s human nature.  But often times, that effort is just foolishness in disguise. That first executive in the story overcame numerous challenges in that zoo.  But it was all an effort in foolishness that kept him from achieving the important goal.

Spending a lot of time and effort to overcome a huge challenge is huge mistake if the challenge can be avoided. You don’t need to fix problems if you can avoid them in the first place (like going around, rather than through a lions’ cage). And some problems aren’t worth the effort to fix them (the cost benefit ratio is wrong). And then there are the opportunity costs…all that effort to fix that problem is effort that was unavailable for more important tasks.

Therefore, don’t automatically reward great effort which overcame a challenge. First, find out if the problem could have been avoided or whether the problem was worth the effort or whether the effort prevented more important accomplishments.  If this is the case, then perhaps punishment is more appropriate.

People do what gets rewarded.  If overcoming challenges is what gets rewarded, then people will find (or even create) lots of challenges to work on.  They will be like the first executive in the story—busy on the wrong things, but looking good while doing it. That second executive didn’t look all that heroic (all she did was take a taxi).  But she was the one who got the important big picture stuff accomplished. That is what should be rewarded.

The more you link rewards to achieving the big picture, the more likely folks will focus on that.  Remember, standing on your head while juggling may take more effort and look more impressive than walking, but it will never get you to your destination.  Those who just keep walking towards the goal are the real heroes, not the jugglers of the inconsequential “crisis of the day.”    

3. Just Say No
Although it is tempting to want to roll up one’s sleeves to tackle the challenge of the day, it may be more heroic to just say no.  Don’t spend any time focused on it at all.  This can be done in two ways.  First, one can set up rules in advance for how issues are to be handled.  That way, the old crisis of the day is no longer a crisis because we have established the protocol in advance for how to handle it.  Instead, the old challenge requiring executive effort becomes a routine event that just goes through the system based on the established protocol. You’d be surprised at how many crises are just routine events that are merely missing a protocol.

Second, one can delegate the problem to someone else lower in the organization.  This will free up your time to devote to more critical long-term issues that only you can solve. 

I’m reminded of what management guru Peter Drucker said in his book “The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done.”  In the book, Drucker says, “Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. They know that they have no choice but to do first things first—and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done.”

This is what my second executive in the story did.  She ignored the zoo entirely and only did the important thing—getting to point B quickly and effectively by taxi.

Although the challenges immediately in front of us may appear at the moment to be the best use of our time, that is rarely true.  Instead, it is getting to those more distant major strategic goals which is the most effective use of our time.  To help get executives focused on the bigger picture, we need to a) keep the distance in view on a daily basis, b) stop rewarding great effort focused on the wrong thing, and c) just say no to the crisis of the day.

If you look at a newspaper from a week ago, you may find that what seemed important enough to put on the front page then no longer seems all that critical if read today.  The same can be said about most of the crises of the day.  A week later you may wonder why it seemed so important then.

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