Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Strategic Planning Analogy #570: The Magic Word

There is a magical word in the English language. That word is “Normal.” Normal represents that which is to be expected: the routine, the average to which everything else is compared. If something is better than normal, we rate it with a positive number. If something is worse than normal we rate is with a negative number. And normal remains the eternal midpoint of 0.

What makes “normal” a magical word? It’s magical because it can change your entire perspective on life. For example, let’s say your life falls into a terrible routine—you’re locked in a prison camp, or you’re living every day in poverty with little to eat, or some such situation. It looks bad. You’d think you’d rate it a low negative number.


If your situation stays like that long enough, it becomes your expected routine. It becomes your normal to which you compare everything else. It is your new reference point of 0. Now it is no longer the definition of bad. Bad is that which is worse than that new normal, no matter how bad the starting point of your new normal is.

That is why people who have lived their entire life in poor impoverished nations often seem so happy. This situation is their normal. It is pretty much all they know. It is their stating point of zero. Since it rarely gets worse, they don’t rate much in negative numbers. And since it sometimes gets better, they have many positive moments.

So, if you find your life taking a bad turn, just pull out that magic word of “normal.” Classify your current state as the new normal. Suddenly, it moves from being a big negative to being your new zero. And zero feels a whole lot better than a big negative number.

Many companies have learned the magic in the word “normal.” When times get bad for a business, they explain it away as being “the new normal.”

“We can’t do anything about this situation,” they say. “It’s just the way things are. It’s the normal way the marketplace will work from now on. We just have to accept it and live in this reality.”

They make it sound so logical. They claim these aren’t really bad times. These are now normal times. This is all that can be expected in times like these. Instead of the situation being rated a negative number, things are now recalibrated to zero.  

And in recalibrating to zero, the business accepts the new status quo. They settle for the new point zero. They stop aspiring for anything much better. It’s okay now to be this way well into the future because it is normal.

And this is where the strategic problem arises. Once you accept a bad situation as normal, you are trapped into thinking that this current situation is the baseline for strategy. It is the norm from which you try to eke out minor improvements. The parameters of your assumptions are bound by the mistaken belief that the events causing your situation to be bad are normal, and therefore nearly impossible to change.

As a result, the expectations in one’s strategy tend to drop. After all, it is difficult to pull off abnormal results when the forces of nature are pulling you back to normal, right?  This causes weak, ineffective strategies which perpetuate a bad situation. Significant improvement doesn’t happen, because you no longer expect it or plan for it. You’ve let the magic of normal lull you into complacency.

I first learned about this principle in a college political science class. Although my college professor didn’t quite say it in these words, he believed that most social unrest and political revolts were a result of changes in the perception of normal.

His logic went something like this. As long as the citizens of a nation saw their situation as normal, they were relatively content. You can’t change normal, so you may as well accept it. So even nations with horrible conditions were relatively stable. This is all the people knew and it was all the people expected, because it was their vision of normal. There was no reason to change, because they did not see anything to change to.

But then, in the middle of the 20th century, mass media started penetrating the far corners of the earth. People in the poor, repressive nations started to see how life was lived in other places. They saw how other places had a totally different type of normal life. The normal in these other nations looked MUCH BETTER than what they were experiencing. Suddenly, these nations decided that the superior normal in these other places should be their normal, too.

By accepting this new and better definition of normal, the people in the poor, repressive nations changed their perspective. Now, their current circumstances were no longer rated as zero. By comparison to the new idea of what should be normal, the current situation was a huge negative number.

Nobody wants to live in a highly negative situation, so the people in these nations started to revolt. They were willing to make great sacrifices in order to achieve their much higher expectations of what normal should be. So, according to my professor, mass media and its impact on people’s expectations is what ended colonialism and put the world on a better path.

Application to Strategic Planning  
So how does this principle apply to strategic planning? Businesses can be like those repressive nations before the mass media. Everyone pretty much accepts the current situation. It is all they know and they think it is all that can be achieved. It is the normal we have to live with.

The nations did not revolt and work to improve the situation until they could imagine a potential new normal that was worth fighting for. Without first creating the ability to conceive of a new reality, there was no reason for the people to rock the boat and take radical action.

From this, one of the most important principles of strategic planning can be seen: Before you can convince a company to take on the difficult task of radical change, you must first convince the people that there is a new and much better version of normal that can be attained from that change effort.

Therefore, one of the chief roles of the strategist is this: to help the people within the business redefine their perception of what normal can be. The strategist has to paint a picture of a future which is not only much better than today’s norms, but also something which they can envision as becoming their new norm if they are willing to work for it.

Making Insiders Into Outsiders
This is one of the reasons why most revolutions in an industry are started by outsiders. Because outsiders have not lived inside the industry, they aren’t brainwashed into thinking that the norms of the industry are the way things need to be. Outsiders have an advantage in dreaming up and going after a new definition of normal, because:

·         The minds of outsiders are not clouded by years of living under the old normal. They don’t have to unlearn the old conception to form a new one, because they never lived under the old conception.
·         Outsiders have no vested interest in the current normal. It is not theirs. By contrast, insiders have to change their thinking about their identity, which is tied to the current normal.
·         Outsiders have nothing to lose if the normal of the status quo is upset. By contrast, insiders worry the change will make their situation worse. Kodak didn’t aggressively move from film-based to digital-based imaging because that new normal looked less profitable. What they missed is the fact that bankruptcy from not adapting to the new normal is even less profitable.

Therefore another key role for the strategist is this: to help insiders think more like outsiders. This means helping people look at the industry with new eyes that are not clouded by the past. This helps people to conceive of a better normal.

One of the enemies of strategic planning is complacency. If people feel the status quo is all that can be achieved, they will resist any effort to change. Therefore, one of the key roles of strategic planning is to help people to do two things: 1) Envision a new and better normal; and 2) Help them believe that the new normal is achievable.  Sometimes, it helps if you can get people to see their industry more like an outsider than an insider.

The inability to envision a better normal is not an excuse to view the status quo as being acceptable. Bad is still bad, even if you cannot see a way to make it better. In these cases, perhaps the best move is to sell out to someone who is willing to accept that poor reality…preferably before an outsider finds a way to make that view of normal obsolete.

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