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Annie Hayes

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Opinion: Strategy and the fat smoker Part I

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Much of what professional firms do in the name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time, no more effective than individuals making New Year’s resolutions.


The reasons are the same in both situations. Personally and professionally, we already know what we should do: lose weight, give up smoking, exercise more. In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, provide fulfilling and motivating careers.

We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it and we know how to do it. Yet we don’t change, most of us, as individuals or as businesses.

The problem is that many change efforts are based on the assumption that all you have to do is to explain to people that their life could be better, be convincing that the goals are worth going for and show them how to do it. This is patently false. If this were true, there would be no drug addicts in the world, no alcoholics and no bad marriages:

“Oh, I see, it’s not good for me? Ah, well then, I’ll stop, of course!” What nonsense!

And yet strategic plans and annual speeches by CEOs, managing partners, management consultants and others continue to have this same useless structure: “Look at how fabulous it would be if you were a fit, non-smoking exerciser, David!” My usual response?

“True, but please shut up and go away.” And that’s the response of most audiences to the manager’s or consultant’s latest vision or strategy. “We knew all this a long time ago. Why don’t you ask us why we don’t do it?” Now there’s an interesting question!

Why we don’t do it
The primary reason we do not work at areas in which we know we need to improve is that the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate.

To reach our goals, we must first change our lifestyle, our daily habits, now. Then we have to have the courage to keep up the new habits and not yield to all the old familiar temptations. Then, and only then, we get the benefits later.

As human beings, we are not good at such decisions. We start self improvement programmes with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if temptation to depart from the programme arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the programme.

That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying a little on a new strategy. You can’t get half the benefits of a better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, you don’t cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks and you don’t much reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.

So it is with business strategy: you can’t achieve a competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well, most of the time.” Not only can you not dabble, but you also cannot have short term strategies (an oxymoron, if ever there was one.) The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.

As Jean Nidetch (the founder of Weight Watchers) believed, the pursuit of quick weight loss is always self-defeating and ill-advised. If you don’t understand from the beginning that you have to change your lifestyle, now and forever, then you are wasting your time. Any initial weight you lose will be put right back on.

What’s more, repeated short-lived efforts at weight loss are actually detrimental to long-run success since, among other reasons, they breed cynicism and the attitude of “We can’t do this. We’ve tried and failed before.”

Millions of people and countless businesses have proved her insight exactly correct. You are either seriously on the programme, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time.

Strategy is the diet, not the goal
Debating which goals to pursue (whether you wish to choose losing weight, giving up smoking, ceasing to drink or starting to exercise) is a nonsensical process if you lack the discipline to stick with the (different) diet and exercise programmes that each of these requires. The only meaningful debate is which diet you are really ready to get on.

Giving up smoking may be better for you (or a better competitive strategy), but if you’re not willing to make the changes that the specific goal requires, its relative importance is irrelevant.

It’s the same in business. Discussing “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats” (to take only the oldest and most familiar of the strategic planning exercises) is fun, but gets nowhere near the real questions.

Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve. The essential questions of strategy are these: “Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever? Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make? What issues are we really ready to tackle?”

Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason the real debate is so often avoided.) Discussing goals is stimulating, inspiring and energizing. Discussing what disciplines you are prepared to accept to get to a goal feels tough, awkward, annoying, frightening and completely unpleasant.

An illustration
As an example, consider the familiar strategic topic of aiming for competitive differentiation through excellence in client service. Here are three real-world examples of programmes to achieve this goal:

a) Once a quarter, an email is sent by the CEO to all active clients (without consultation with the lead people serving those clients), asking them to click on one of three buttons in the email: green if they are satisfied with the way their work is being handled, amber if they have some concerns and red if they are unhappy.

The CEO personally reviews all the email replies, every day, following up on every single one that is not a green. Every quarter, the group averages on this score are published for each operating unit within the firm (every office, every discipline area) and distributed to everyone in the organisation. Even the mail room clerks can see each quarter how well the senior vice presidents in each group are doing on client satisfaction.

b) At compensation-setting time, the relevant senior management group conducts a phone or face-to-face interview with every client that partner has served in the last year (or a scientifically chosen random sample if the numbers are too high to be practical).

These client assessments carry a significant (40 to 60 per cent) weighting in pay. You can’t get paid for selling or doing more volume unless it is more volume of highly satisfied clients. There is no reward for more volume of only moderately satisfied clients.

c) The organisation adopts and publicizes an unconditional satisfaction guarantee, allowing clients to pay only what they thought the work was worth if they were disappointed.

These are just three examples of how to enforce the same strategic idea. Other ideas may be superior. The debate you would need to have in your firm, if you really want to pursue this or any other strategic goal, would be a series of questions:

  • Which diet, if integrated into our normal running of the firm, would actually get us to perform at a higher level, enough to achieve the benefits we seek?

  • Which would we be prepared to adopt as a central part of our regular lifestyle?

  • If we don’t like any of these diets, can anyone think of another that will have as much force as these, but that we could live with more easily?

Substitutes are allowed. No one diet idea is without flaw, and there are drawbacks to every programme. If asked what the best way to lose weight is, the only sensible answer is “Whatever diet you will stick to!”

However, if there is no specific diet that all your people can agree to follow, then you must conclude that you are not really willing or able to pursue that strategic goal.

Which is no shame. Life offers many opportunities to do quite well being competent. You don’t have to strive for excellence. It’s just that if you are not willing to do what it takes to achieve excellence, you should probably just shut up about it (internally and externally) and stop pretending!

There is no business benefit in claiming to pursue a goal that everyone can tell you don’t have the guts to pursue. It not only makes you look foolish to clients, staff and colleagues, but it also deeply demoralises people and breeds cynicism.

Declaring your commitment to strategies that you don’t follow will lower your organisation’s energy and its profits.

What gets people on the diet?
If all business improvement is like curing a fat smoker or helping an alcoholic recover, what, then, actually gets people and organisations to change?

We all know the main thing that works: a major crisis! If revenues drop off sharply, it’s amazing how quickly businesses can act to deal with known inefficiencies and bad habits they could have tackled years ago.

And when the first heart attack comes, it’s amazing how many people suddenly find the self-discipline to start living right.

That’s close to what happened to me. Until March 2005, I was a fat smoker. I had been overweight for most of my life and smoked a pack a day for 37 years. I don’t say that as a confession. I never pretended that getting fit was my strategy.

Then, a variety of medical conditions put me into the hospital with a kidney malfunction. In the five months that followed, I stopped smoking, started exercising and lost 30 pounds.

This was all wonderful news for me and an amazing and welcome surprise to my family and friends, but a depressing conclusion for any theory of change.

Do people and institutions really have to wait until something very serious, happens to them to fix things they have known about for years? Isn’t there any
hope of a better way?

See the second part tomorrow!

David Maister is a published author of several business books and a former professor of at the Harvard Business School. This article is published with his permission. Copyright 2005 David Maister.

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