I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me. In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day. And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.
But I digress. Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy. In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers. Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.” It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.
I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:
5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.” It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase. For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.” In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.
4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring. Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company? I bet you have. Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah. And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year. Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.
3) Mind-numbing language. As above. Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff. Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.
2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you. See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few. Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why. Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?
And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):
1) They don’t see the connection to real life. Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it. Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.
It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this. And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there. And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.
That doesn’t sound so boring. That actually sounds reasonable and very useful. Let’s do that.
I read a great many posts and articles by and about entrepreneurs. Lately it has seemed to me that there are two basic entrepreneurial mindsets. There may well be more, and there may be variations on these themes, but these two entrepreneurial types seem to cover most of the territory I’ve observed.
Flavor #1 is the “make a killing” (MAK) entrepreneur. His or her core motivation is to crack the code on becoming wealthy. This kind of entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap not primarily to rid the world of disease-creating vermin, or give people a more humane mouse-removal option, but to exit the mousetrap business altogether with a very fat check in hand, and retire to the South of France. Now, these folks quite often create wonderful new things – but what they really want to do is figure out how to build something that can be scaled up and sold.
Flavor #2 is the “richard branson” (RB) entrepreneur. He or she is passionately committed to bringing a product or service to the world that’s better, faster, sleeker, simpler, more sustainable, more delightful, easier, etc. This entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap because he or she can see so clearly how much cooler it would be than anything that currently exists. And this person can’t wait to see how it’s going to happen. Now, this kind of entrepreneur quite often also gets rich (as witness the actual Richard Branson) and sometimes even buys a house in in the south of France – but he or she probably keeps working on the next, even cooler version of the thing while sitting on his or her terasse. Getting rich is not the point – or not the main point.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve been realizing that I’m about
95% RB, and my business partner is about 65% RB and about 35% MAK (I haven’t run this by him yet – he might assess himself differently). And I see that his infusion of MAK-ness is very good for me and for the business. Without him, the business wouldn’t be growing as quickly, and we wouldn’t be thinking as much (or as practically) about creating new revenue streams that are more self- sustaining and scalable.
But I’m also watching my son – who is heavily weighted toward the RB side – having lots of difficulty finding an operating rhythm with his business partner, who is a pure, unadulterated, 100% MAK. They have these frustrating conversations where Ian focuses (passionately) on brand and how they can build a business and a reputation by giving their customers an experience and food that are uniquely attractive in a very specific way. And his partner just wants to focus on reducing food and liquor costs, increasing operational efficiencies and getting people in and out quickly, so their restaurant will blow up and turn a big profit. They’re speaking two different languages entirely, with almost no overlap, and I know that each thinks the other is…not wrong, exactly, but just not that appealing.
And it seems to me that if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s important to become aware of your primary flavor. It will help you get clear about what success looks like for you, and it will also help you make sure that your partners share enough of your mindset to speak the same language and be excited about the same future.
Which may very well include that house in the South of France, whatever your flavor.
Some of you may have noticed that there was no Insider List at the end of June- and for those who have been with us for awhile, you probably figured out that it meant I was on vacation, since this is the 3rd year in a row I’ve taken a June vacation-related hiatus from the Insider List.
It was great to unplug for 10 days or so, and I’m getting better at doing it. But I have to confess, I still felt a bit guilty not writing the communications I’ve committed to writing on an ongoing basis: the Insider List, the Forbes blog posts, the Erika Andersen blog posts, and my weekly emails to the Proteus team. Nothing bad happened as a result of not doing that writing, and I truly believe it’s important to take complete breaks from work – even work you love. But still…I noticed I wasn’t completely OK with it.
Fully Doing: Fully Not Doing…
Based on dozens or perhaps hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the years with colleagues, clients and family members, I know that this is a pretty common problem. We tend to think about vacations when we’re working; we tend to think about working when we’re on vacation. We think about family and friends when we’re with our colleagues; we sometimes think about colleagues when we’re with family and friends.
And the problem with this is that when we’re not 100% present in any given moment, everything suffers: our experience, our results, our relationships.
To get a sense of this, think about a moment in the recent past when you were fully engaged and present. Perhaps it was a moment playing with one of your kids, when everything else fell away and it was just the two of you having fun. Or maybe a discussion at work where your brain was on fire, you and your colleagues were coming up with great stuff and you completely lost track of the time. Or it could have been a solitary moment at the end of a day, sitting and looking out a window; relaxed, a little tired, but just enjoying taking in a beautiful view.
Think about how you felt in that moment – physically, mentally, emotionally.
I can’t speak for you, but I know how I feel in those moments of being completely present: aware, open, full of potential; as though the best of me is more accessible. Wonderful experiences can find me when I’m present: I’m here to be found. I do my best thinking; get my best results; provide best support for my most important relationships when I’m all here.
So, my commitment to myself (and this is a lifelong commitment – vacations are simply a demonstration to me of how much I need to keep re-committing to this) moment to moment, is:
I’ll see you there…