courtesy of nostalgiapassages.com
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of selling. For some reason, even from an early age, I had the idea that sales was simply about finding people who had a real need for what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person. I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it – and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.
And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later. I set up a conversation with someone; I listen to find out whether he or she could have a need for something Proteus offers. If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer. If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus. Next!
I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that pretty much reinforced the positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years.
However, it also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in a positive light – why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Rather than seeing it as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, they see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy. Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used car salesman in a shiny suit and bad toupee. No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!
The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell. If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day – to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees.
And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.
So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling – and that means (you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk. Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:
1) Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?
2) Listen to the response that arises inside your head:
2a) If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit – congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.
2b) If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushiness, annoying, drudgery, scary – I suggest you continue on to step 3.
3) What could you say to yourself differently that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you selling – yet still feels true to you? I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.
4) Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself of it whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.
Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently and then acting differently about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and heart, you might feel comfortable enough to explore ways to get better and better at it.
Just in case, here are two articles to support your evolution: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post on my Forbes blog from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.
I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.
And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.” For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get – at best – a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to….” or “5 Ways You Can….”, the page views jump dramatically.
So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths: “school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.” As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling: our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9-year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.
And it’s really unfortunate, because – in the words of Arie De Geus – “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well. In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?
All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.
To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid. Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you. Little kids are driven to learn. They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism – from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.
And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old has experienced this firsthand: Why? How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism – understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.
There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes. We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.
Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,” she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated. But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters – and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.
I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.
I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know. I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.
And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.
Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years. I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us. But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.
My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.
My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m
very excited about it. The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air. Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.
The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.
So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.
And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.
When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!
I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.
Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”
If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.
My daughter just put something wonderful on facebook the other day. It’s about 7 minutes long, but I strongly encourage you to watch at least the first 5 minutes. Then we’ll talk about it…
I love this so much. I had no idea such a thing existed, and I’m truly fond of finding out new stuff.
I have an almost childlike joy, a sense of excitement and wonder, at discovering new things. I feel very fortunate to have retained this quality as an adult; I believe we are all born with it (watch any two-year-old exploring a new object), but too many of us have it thoroughly socialized out of us early on. We’re told that our enthusiasm is childish; we’re made fun of for not knowing things; we watch others (parents and teachers especially) act as though grown-ups are supposed to know everything…and our openness to and enjoyment of new learning gets squashed.
I used to work with someone who simply refused to acknowledge when she was hearing new information. Whenever I would tell her something that I was nearly positive she didn’t know, based either on things she had said or ways I’d observed her behaving, she had one of two responses. The first was, “Yes, that’s just like this other thing (that I’m very familiar with)” – even if it wasn’t at all like that other thing. I believe her deep aversion to admitting that she didn’t know something caused her to unconsciously shoehorn new information into old frameworks, just so she could claim prior knowledge. Her other response was simple rejection; she just wouldn’t accept the new idea or information. Sometimes she would voice her disagreement, but more often she would simply purse her lips and look disapproving. Over the years, I came to understand it as her “this is a crock and I’m not buying it for a minute” look.
Both of those responses kept her effectively blocked from learning. Over the many years we worked together, I saw how painfully slow and difficult it was for her to open up to new colleagues, acquire new skills, change her mind, see another’s perspective, acknowledge changes in other people or the business. In fact, she finally left the organization because she was unwilling or unable to make a major change that was being asked of her.
Are you in touch with your own wonder? Here’s a way to find out. Reflect on how you felt as you were watching the video above, and then answer these four questions:
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Whatever, dude,” and 10 being “Holy crap!” how impressed were you by what you saw?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I pretty much knew that,” and 10 being “I had no frigging idea,” what were you thinking as you watched this? (Recuse yourself from this question if you’re a) a physicist, b) a glassblower, or c) the maker of the video.)
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Huh,” and 10 being “I can’t wait to show this to somebody,” how excited were you about sharing your learning?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all, and 10 being a lot, how happy/excited were you to find out there was such a thing as a Prince Rupert’s Drop?
Because, in my mind, these are the key elements of childlike wonder: being impressed and charmed by new learning; being willing to admit that it’s new to you; and wanting to pass it on.
But why does this matter? I think it’s key to success in the world today. If wonder is your primary reaction to new skills, new knowledge, and new possibilities, you’ll be much more likely to thrive in this time of ours where massive, disruptive change is a constant, and where roughly 95% of all human knowledge has been discovered since World War II.
So: re-engage your inner two-year-old, and have at it.
When I started writing the Insider List 3 years ago, in September of 2010, Proteus was a very different company. For instance, more than half our current staff and consultants had not yet joined us. We didn’t have a NYC office, we had no presence in Latin America, and were doing minimal work outside the US.
I was still in the middle of writing Leading So People Will Follow, and we hadn’t yet created the Accepted Leader Assessment. The paperback of Being Strategic (along with the Public TV show) had just come out.
And most important relative to the Insider List – I hadn’t yet been asked to become a contributor at Forbes, so the “How Work Works” blog didn’t yet exist.
Fast Forward to 2013…
Now, three years later, Proteus has doubled in size; we have many wonderful new staff members and consultants who are raising our game and helping our clients get clearer and stronger. Ivan Cortes, our LATAM director, is bringing the Proteus brand to South America, and we’re doing significant work in Europe, India, Asia and the Pacific.
We’ve also created the Leading So People Will Follow LinkedIn group, which provides another place for sharing wisdom about leadership.
And the Forbes blog has really taken off – it’s generally getting over 100,000 visitors a month, and is widely socialized across the net. I usually post there 3 times a week. I’m still posting at erikaandersen.com too, though less often, and I end up writing articles or doing interviews that appear in other publications 2 or 3 times a quarter.
So what does this mean for the Insider List? As I’ve reflected over the past month, I’ve realized that there are many more options for being involved in a conversation with me than there were 3 years ago. And the conclusion that brings me to – though I have to say I’m a little sad about this – is that it’s probably time for us to sunset the Insider List, at least for the present.
For those of you who have enjoyed getting the Insider List and haven’t taken advantage of our LinkedIn group, the Forbes blog or the erikaandersen.com blog, I invite you to join us there. They are all great places to continue our conversation about leader readiness and how to make work the best it can be.
Thank you so much for your support and interest, and I hope to keep growing together with you for years to come.
As many of you know, I wrote a book called Growing Great Employees a few years back. One chapter focuses on how to get new people started well in your organization. I proposed that, in general, people want three questions answered when they start a new job: Who do I need to know?, How do things get done around here?, and What’s expected of me?
Not long ago a client of mine turned me on to an article published a few years ago in Business Week about the (then) emerging discipline of Social Network Analysis. I got very intrigued, and continued to research the subject.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is “the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, computers, URLs, and other connected information/knowledge entities. The nodes in the network are the people and groups, while the links show relationships or flows between the nodes.” I got that definition from the website of orgnet.com, a company that’s been doing SNA and providing SNA software to clients for 15 years.
I find this both fascinating and useful: SNA is a way of making visible the answer to two of those three core questions – “Who do I need to know?” and “How does stuff get done around here?”
SNA provides critical insights into how information flows (and doesn’t); who is at the core of networks of people and who’s at the periphery; where there are silos and where interaction happens freely. If used well, it can help companies take best advantage of the employees who are “examplars” – those to whom others turn for advice, knowledge, insights. It can also help organizations see “blockages” in work and information flow, and focus more usefully on how to get things unstuck.
This isn’t new – many of these concepts are at the core of Seth Godin’s latest books, for instance, and orgnet.com has a big client list – but I love the idea that this way of visualizing organizations is becoming more widespread. It’s yet another indication to me that what has historically been thought of as “the soft stuff” in organizations is finally getting recognized as key to productivity and profit.
SNA demonstrates, in a very clear and 21st century way, that people really are our most important resource.
OK, I am now officially tired of listening to baby-boomers and gen-Xers trash talk about Millenials. The complaints I hear over and over: “entitled,” “no work ethic,” and “disrespectful.”
Maybe I’m hanging out with the cream of the crop, but the folks I know who are in their 20s and early 30s aren’t any of those things. Or maybe I’m just seeing it differently. Rather than “entitled,” I’d say, “questioning traditional pathways to success.” Instead of “no work ethic” I’d say, “unwilling to work hard at things that aren’t meaningful to them.” And I don’t see the young people I know as “disrespectful,” I see them as being “unwilling to respect others based on role or position.” In fact, the Millenials I know have enormous respect for what they see as important accomplishments, financial, social or moral.
The way my peers talk about the generation now coming up is eerily reminiscent of the way the World War II generation talked about us baby-boomers when we were in our teens and twenties. In fact, I’m absolutely positive, when I was a hippy in the late sixties and early seventies, that those exact accusations (entitled, no work ethic, disrespectful) got thrown at me and my friends. So perhaps it’s simply a universal grumble that each generation has about the subsequent one.
Why Not Grumble?
I think it’s important, though, to stop indulging in generation-based griping, and figure out what we can do to help them instead. These young people who are now entering into their adult lives are the future of our world.
Until recently, most human cultures ascribed to the theory that each generation would impart skills, values, and knowledge to succeeding generations. Young men and women apprenticing to their parents in trade; young people listening at their grandparents’ knee to the stories that defined their society – its cautions and taboos, its accomplishments and values.
And I think we can still aspire to pass along what we understand and know how to do to the next generation. I find it deeply satisfying when one of my kids, or a young colleague or client tells me that something I’ve shared has been valuable to them: it makes me feel as though I’m doing my part to support the evolution of the human race. The more we can pass along, the less each generation will have to start from scratch in figuring out important stuff.
So, my question for you: what skills, insight, or knowledge do you have that you could offer to the new generation? That is, how can you – personally – help ensure that the next generation has what they need to make this a better world?
Till next time,
A friend once told me I was a genius. When I demurred, he added, “Genius is about seeing patterns where others see only chaos – and you’re really good at that.”
In the years since, I’ve seen similar definitions. My favorite is by the literary critic and author Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Genius is vision, often involving the gift of finding patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects.
So: if a core element of genius is an unusual capability for pattern recognition — can we cultivate that?
First, let’s talk about why it’s so useful. Even before we talk about genius, it’s important to recognize that being able to see the patterns in our experience is the key catalyst for learning. My almost-three-year-old granddaughter is relentless in finding and using patterns. For instance, after trying a variety of approaches (including demanding and fake crying) she’s learned that saying “please” will almost always get her what she wants. So “please” is quickly becoming a standard item in her vocabulary.
Take that basic human learning tool and ramp it up to “seeing patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects,” and you have the core of all innovation and new understanding – what people call genius. It’s also an essential quality of good leaders.
And yes, we can get better at it. Here are three simple tools for stretching those muscles:
Get curious: Curiosity is that deep internal impulse to investigate. We all have it in abundance as children: it’s the source of their endless “why?” and “then what?” questions. Unfortunately, by the time we get to be adults, it’s been largely socialized out of us; we think we’re supposed to know everything and it’s seen as either rude or naïve to be too curious. But if you want to access and develop your innate ability to see patterns, you have to first re-ignite your curiosity. One great way to do it is to consciously ask “Why is that happening?” or “How does that work?” in day-to-day situations that you’ve come to take for granted. For instance, I recently encouraged a client to reflect on why her relationship with an employee had gotten strained. She came back to me a couple of weeks later, saying that once she started looking at what had changed, she realized that she had fallen into the habit of disagreeing with his ideas in meetings because his way of presenting those ideas was irritating to her – and that she was both ignoring some potentially useful ideas and hurting their relationship as a result. Voila – pattern recognition!
Be objective. My client’s recognition of that unhelpful pattern – and her part in it – required not only curiosity but also objectivity, which is the ability to look at all sides of a situation with openness and dispassion. If you go into a situation with deeply held pre-conceived ideas about what you’ll find, it’s unlikely that you’ll see anything new. The key to being objective is to cultivate the skill of being a Fair Witness, which I’ve blogged about regularly. The essence of being a fair witness is to observe your own self-talk (your internal monologue) to see whether what you’re saying to yourself about a situation is neutral and accurate. And if it’s not, to change it. For example, if my client had gotten curious but not objective about the situation – with slanted self-talk that supported her pre-existing beliefs, she might have come to the conclusion that her employee was simply an irritating guy, and that there was nothing she could do to improve the relationship. Being a fair witness quite often allows you to see things in new and unexpected ways, as my client experienced, to her benefit.
Pull back the camera. Once you’ve gotten curious and put yourself into an objective, fair witness mindset, it’s critical to step back mentally from the situation so that you can see the whole: that’s when patterns emerge. Years ago, I was at MOMA in New York. When I walked into the room where Monet’s single-panel Water Lilies hangs, I was first struck by its size: it’s over six feet high and almost twenty feet long. You have to stand across the room to take it all in at once; from a distance, you can see how wonderfully Monet captured the tranquility of light-suffused water, floating Japanese lilies, clouds overhead. But when you move in close to the painting, the pattern dissolves, and all you see is a collection of seemingly random brush strokes, in a variety of colors: your ‘camera’ is pulled in too close to make sense of it.
If you ‘get caught in the brush strokes’ it’s nearly impossible to access your own genius. For instance, let’s say that sales are down at a particular company, and the head of sales is desperate to figure out why. If she ‘pulls in the camera too close,’ she might focus, for instance, only on one or two formerly high-performing salespeople who are missing their targets. Just looking at that one part of the situation, she could assume any number of things: that they’ve somehow lost their edge or are slacking off; that firing them will solve the problem; or, conversely, that if she really leans on them, they’ll get better. Based on those assumptions, she might let them go, offer them training, read them the riot act, etc. – but never see the whole picture and the real patterns inherent in it.
If, instead, she “pulls back the camera,” she might (for instance) find that an important new product line isn’t performing as promised because there’s a slight manufacturing glitch. The high return level is affecting both current sales numbers and customers’ willingness to reorder. The broader view gives a very different perspective, and will almost definitely lead her to a different, more effective, more genius-like response.
The beauty of these approaches – getting curious, being more objective, pulling back the camera – is that they’re all practical, developable skills. In other words, you have genius in you…it’s time to let it out.
As some of you may know, our mission at Proteus is: We help clients clarify and move toward their hoped-for future. However, we also apply our mission to ourselves – we consistently work to clarify and move toward our hoped-for future as a company. The last couple of years have been especially wild and fun: we’ve been growing quickly, and looking for ever-better and more effective ways to support leader readiness at every level.
One of the things we’re really trying to sort out lately is how to best use distant learning to support our in-person training, coaching and facilitation. Even though our foundation is in-person learning, and we believe deeply in the power and efficacy of face-to-face development, we want to figure out how to augment that with other learning approaches.
Our point of view is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, human beings are still physical creatures, and much of our most profound and permanent growth happens as a result of interactions with others. But that learning can be reinforced through lots of other means. In the leadership and management training we do, for instance, we’ve found that having the opportunity to hear about, see, discuss, practice and debrief new skills in real time with an excellent instructor and other learners is key to real behavior change. However, we also know that learning online can be a great lead-in to those face-to-face learning situations, and – even more important – can be powerful in supporting participants’ ongoing learning after the session.
So -What Works?
At this point, we’re talking to smart, experienced people to get their insights about how best to take advantage of the options now available, through technology, to prepare for, support, and sustain face-to-face learning.
And you, my friends, are smart, experienced people. I’d love to hear from you about any ‘distant’ learning options you’ve found valuable – online, mobile, video, whatever.
Just drop me an email, and let us know: What did you like about it? What did you learn? What could have been better? And if you have the chance to send along links, or app names – that would be wonderful, too.
As an added incentive, just for turning us on to something you’ve found valuable, we’ll give you free access to our first online support system, once we’ve developed it.
I can’t wait to hear from you….
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.