Thursday, June 12, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #530: The Power of Power

I once had to sit on a long plane ride next to a woman who wouldn’t stop talking to me. She kept going on and on about all of the products she had “invented” over her lifetime. Although she used the word “invented”, I think that was a bit of a stretch. Actually, a better term would be “dream up.”

She would tell me how she thought of an idea for a new product and then years later a company would actually bring it to market. For example, she told me that she had dreamt up the idea for disposable diapers long before Proctor and Gamble invented them. She never really pursued any of these ideas. She just had an idea that someone else would later also have. The difference was that she never did anything with her idea and they did.

There was only one of her “inventions” which really came to life. It was a brush for cleaning grease traps at fast food restaurants. And it only came to life because she worked for a brush manufacturing company and she had the company actually do the work of bringing it to life.

Just having an idea is not enough to be a successful inventor. You need to bring your idea to life and get it successfully marketed. Lots of people have ideas. The successful ones find a way to make money off their idea.

The lady on the plane didn’t bother to do anything with her vague notions, so she never profited from them. They did her no good. She really was not an inventor—just a thinker.

Strategic planners can fall into the same trap. You can dream up all sorts of cool strategic ideas, but if the ideas are never put into practice, you haven’t really done much. You really aren’t a strategist—just a thinker.

The principle here is that strategies are only useful if they are used. Therefore, a successful strategist does not stop with just an idea. Instead, the strategist finds a way to put the strategy in motion.

Making a strategy useful involves three steps: thinking, acting, and attaching.

1. Thinking
Thinking is the process of coming up with the notion of what strategy to use. This is an essential and necessary first step. It bothers me how many modern companies skip this step. They usually say that there are no competitive advantages and that things change too quickly, making strategic notions passé.

So they skip the thinking step and go right to actions. They work to be fast and agile. They want to get things done. But if you have no strategic notion, then what exactly are your actions leading to? Getting nowhere faster isn’t very comforting. You’re still nowhere.

I’ve written hundreds of blogs and numerous books on the importance of strategy. It makes a difference. Don’t skip the step of developing great strategic ideas.

2. Acting
A lot of us are like the lady on the plane who stop at step one. We have an idea, but don’t act on it. Great ideas don’t just stand up and do the work on their own. You have to do the work to bring them to life.

Thomas Edison said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I’m not sure if those percentages are correct, but his point sure is. If you’re not willing to do the hard work that creates perspiration, your inspiration won’t be very useful. That applies to inventions and to strategies.

This is why it bothers me how strategic planning and operations are so isolated from each other in most organizations. Strategists and operators rarely interact. This makes it hard to connect the inspiration to the perspiration.

Worst case scenario is when the wrong type of outside strategy consultants are brought in, who do little more than just put their strategic notion on a powerpoint slide which only top management sees. The consultants then leave before the implementation stage. The consultants have no vested interest in the act of implementing. They already got their money and have moved on to their next client.

Similarly, the operators have no vested interest in the ideas of these outside consultants. The operators never met them and the operators think that those “ivory tower” consultants are out of touch anyway, so they can be ignored. The result is a failure to get the thinking converted into acting.

That is why I recommend that operators be an integral part of the thinking process. I also recommend that strategic planning departments have a combination of strategy professionals and operating professionals in them. That way, there is a more natural bond between the thinking and the acting, so the thoughts are more likely to be acted upon.

3. Attaching
Good intentions by the ones acting does not ensure that the strategy will be properly implemented. Usually, it takes some form of power to bring the strategy to a successful implementation. Without that power, you will hit a road-block on your path to implementation that you cannot overcome.

That power can take many forms. It could be the power of deep pockets of money. It could be the power of brand recognition. It could be the power of control over distribution channels. It could be the power of knowing the right people. Good strategists figure out what kind of power they need and attach themselves to that power.

It could mean attaching yourself to a venture capital group for cash. It could mean doing a joint venture with someone who has power you are lacking, like distribution. It could mean finding someone who has the power to introduce you to the right people.

The only successful invention of that lady on the plane occurred because she had attached herself, through employment, to a company who had the power to bring brushes to life. If she wasn’t attached to that power, I’m sure that grease trap brush invention would not have occurred, either.

Therefore, successful strategists consider what types of power are needed to make their idea come to life. Then, they include within the strategy a means of acquiring that power.

Bringing a strategy to life has three steps:

  1. Thinking: Coming up with the great strategic notion.
  2. Acting: The hard work of implementation.
  3. Attaching: Finding ways to get access to the power needed to overcome the barriers to success.
Many people try to skip steps. That typically leads to failure.

Good strategists understand that power is powerful (I guess that’s how it got that name). Make sure you have a way to attach yourself to power.

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