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…
So, as is usually the case, the baby watch yielded a baby: Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels, born June 5th at 11:50am. Everybody’s happy and healthy (and, in Charlotte’s case, teeny and gorgeous). One thing I noticed, though, is that things didn’t happen quite the way we’d planned: Patrick wasn’t involved at all in the birth – he’d had to fly to Indianapolis two days before in response to a family emergency. So I picked up Hannah and she stayed with me overnight…and no one went to the birthing center except the new Mom and Dad since Charlotte decided to be born in record time. So I met Charlotte the next day (and had the joy of watching her big sister meet her for the first time, as well), and Patrick met her on Saturday.
Not exactly what we had in mind. And still: astonishing, joyful, miraculous.
Not limiting life to our measure…
I recently listened to someone complaining about his team. As his complaints unfolded, it sounded to me as though his team was actually pretty great: smart people, committed to doing good work, working hard to accomplish the objectives for which they were being held accountable. They were respectful of one another’s opinions and expertise, and they worked well together. No big interpersonal issues. Lots of success. At one point I said, “So the main thing that bugs you about your team is that they’re kind of serious.”
He stopped. “Yeah, well, I guess that’s it,” he said. “I just wish they were more fun; no one wants to hang after work, and there’s not a lot of laughing.”
How often do we overlook the 98% that’s great in a situation or in an outcome because we get obsessed about the 2% that wasn’t what we had in mind? Not even that the alternative 2% is worse – it’s just different. Not what we would have preferred or had planned for.
Here’s a challenge for you. Next time you find yourself irritated, disappointed or upset about something not turning out the way you’d hoped, stop and ask yourself these three questions: “Is this really worse than what I wanted?” “Is there any real reason I can’t be just as satisfied with this?” “Are the ways in which this might actually be better?”
Planning is a great thing, but a big part of the art of planning is being able to flex your plans to accommodate reality as it unfolds.
Till next time…
My second grandchild was born last week – Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels. And when I met her, I was stunned (as I always am by babies, but it’s even more stunning when they’re somehow related to you) by her unsullied beauty and sweetness. As I held her in my arms, I thought about all the possibilities ahead of her: a hundred years of learning, love, accomplishment, joy and insight. The future world she’ll both be a citizen of and help to create.
It’s made me reflect on the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘original sin,’ the idea that all humans are born in a state of sinfulness, based on Adam’s fall from grace in Eden. I’ve never been able to understand this; it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of babies and young children. Looking into Charlotte’s gorgeous little face, I could only think: this is innocence and purity. In fact, my main impulse toward her is to do whatever I can to help her maintain some portion of that marvelous simplicity and light intact as she grows.
She seems to me to be a bundle of purest potential: full to bursting with life; her curiosity ready to be engaged; surrounded by a thousand thousand circumstances, objects and people that can ignite the process of her personal evolution.
And I like to think that we are all still that, 10 or 30 or 70 years later: bundles of potential, able to keep reaching new levels of understanding throughout our lives. I believe we stop ourselves, assuming that we’re too old, too big, too stuck, too tired.
But what if those 2nd century Christians had it exactly backwards: that instead of coming into this world tainted with sin, having to work our way painfully to some state of grace, we arrive in the most complete and lovely state of grace, and have the possibility of staying at least partly in that state while we figure out how to acquire the knowledge, insight, skills, experience and capability to live our best and most satisfying life.
Looking at Charlotte, I believe that’s true.
At my house this week, we’re on baby watch. Our daughter’s due date is tomorrow, and as soon as we get the call, we’ll leap into action: Patrick will call me, so I can make my apologies to whoever I’m meeting with and jump on the train – then he’ll go and get Hannah (our grand daughter), then pick me up at the train station and drop me off at the birthing center. They’ll go home and play (or sleep, depending on the hour) till I call them to let them know that Charlotte, Hannah’s new baby sister, has arrived and they can come and meet her!
It’s all well choreographed (my daughter is a very organized person), and we’ve done it before, so it doesn’t have that nerve-wracking first-time feeling.
But it’s still a miracle.
We think of miracles as once-in-a-lifetime things: the person struck by lightning who doesn’t die; the coin thrown up in the air that lands on its side. But when we limit our conception of miracles to these statistically improbably events, we fail to see the extraordinary in the everyday.
Redefining the miraculous…
One of the definitions for ‘miracle’ at Merriam-Webster is “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” Having a baby may not seem unusual – but think of all that has to come to pass in order to make it happen. Think of the amazing and unlikely union of sperm and egg; then cells dividing and dividing again, millions of times, each fulfilling a designated role; the baby growing safe inside the mother’s body (that in itself astonishing) till – voila – 9 months later, a perfectly formed brand new human being arrives on the scene, starts to breath, opens his or her eyes…
And begins the miraculous journey toward becoming a speaking, walking, talking, feeling, creative person.
Just because something happens all the time, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle. Let me say that more simply: common occurrences can be miraculous. And perhaps most importantly: we can appreciate them as such. The coming of spring each year; falling in love with someone who turns out to be perfectly suited to you; finding your professional passion and having the chance to work at it every day; doing or saying one thing that changes the course of another person’s life: these are all miraculous.
We can choose to put them into a “that happens all the time” category in our minds, turning them into boring commonalities not worthy of our attention, or we can see them as they truly are: Open our minds to noticing to the incredible complexity of factors necessary to even the most mundane event. Seeing the miraculous in the everyday gives you a very different experience of being alive. Each day seems chock-full of possibilities, happy confluences, wondrous outcomes. The world becomes richer, more three-dimensional.
And it’s up to you: you can see the world and your own life as ho-hum, business as usual, nothing special…or you can see the miraculous at every turn. The choice is yours.
Till next time…
“O Wonder, How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act. V, Sc. I
courtesy of Wikipedia
People have been using this quote for 400 years, mostly ironically (in line with Shakespeare’s original use): the utterance of a protagonist who misunderstands a new world, thinking it wonderful, when it is in fact dystopic (probably the best-known example being Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel, Brave New World).
However, I’m proposing today that we can also use it in a completely positive way. Just last week I had great time doing a podcast with a wonderful guy named Tanveer Naseer. Tanveer and I started following each other last summer on Twitter. Then he responded to a query from our publicist Kaila (all via email) and indicated that he’d like to interview me for his podcast show, Leadership Biz Cafe. Tanveer and I did our interview on Skype, and now it’s available on his site.
OK, so think about this. Tanveer lives in Montreal, and I live primarily in New York City. We have (as far as I know) no intersections of school, family or friends. Without current digital technology, we never would have run into each other. And now (I’m sure) we’re permanently connected, and will support each other’s work and success in whatever ways we can.
And you – who may never have met either Tanveer or me, and perhaps never will – can benefit from our interaction as well, where ever you are. If you hear something that resonates for you in our conversation, you can use it for your own benefit, and pass it along to whomever you wish. A truly brave new world, indeed.
I know technology can do all kinds of bad stuff, and that Huxley-esque aspects exist in this “brave new world” of ours. But we can also use all of these new capabilities that exist to learn, to create connections, to innovate, to grow.
Let’s do that.
“Good humor is the health of the soul, sadness is its poison.”
- Lord Chesterfield
My colleagues and I laugh a lot at work. I take this as one of the best signs of Proteus’ health as an organization. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but when people are uncomfortable with each other, or don’t trust each other, there’s generally not a lot of laughing going on (except for the forced, awkward, hah-hah-hah kind, and that doesn’t count).
As Lord Chesterfield noted almost 300 years ago, humor promotes health – physical, emotional, and mental. But laughing with (as opposed to at or about) others benefits your professional life, as well.
Humor makes things easier…
I wrote a post at Forbes a few weeks ago about humor, Want to Get a Promotion? Be Funnny, where I cited a statistic I found fascinating,“A Robert Half International survey…found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.”
Those are pretty impressive percentages. So, what is it about humor that makes it so important to our success?
I think of humor as one of the primary lubricants of human interaction. That is, when you share a laugh with someone, everything seems a little easier. You feel more connected, more relaxed.
For instance, when a difficult situation arises, if you’re able to see the irony or the absurdity in it, and smile or laugh with others about it, you feel as though you’re in it together – rather than that you’re facing it alone.
If there’s a tense moment between you and someone, and one of you responds with humor (especially self-deprecating humor) rather than defensiveness or confrontation – it breaks the tension and provides an opening to come back to comfort and trust.
And when a team uses humor regularly, it communicates ease and affection – “we get each other and we like each other” – in a simple and consistent way. It makes all the members of the team more likely to feel that they can come to each other with questions or problems, and that they’ll get openness and support vs. stone-walling or “not my job.” Humor builds our confidence in and reliance on each other. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
― Maya Angelou
Till next time -
Some of you may not know that I write a bi-monthly email called the “Insider List,” and send it to everyone who has opted to receive it (you can do that here on the site, if you’re interested). Last time I wrote about the slipperiness of language – and how that slipperiness makes listening even more important. The example I used was the word/phrase “mayday” or “May Day,” which can either mean a happy spring holiday or a call for help.
In response, one of my “Insiders,” a friend and colleague named Todd Sattersten, sent me an email letting me know that there’s a word for words that have two opposite meanings: they’re called contronyms. Here are a few great examples (some of them from Todd):
sanction - ‘a penalty’ or ‘official permission or approval’
fine – ‘the state of being good’ or ‘a penalty for doing something bad’
shop – ‘buy’ or ‘attempt to sell’
custom – ‘special’ or ‘usual’
bolt – ‘secure’ or ‘run away’
dust – ‘add fine particles’ or ‘remove fine particles’
strike – ‘hit’ or ‘miss (a ball)’
buckle – ‘fasten together’ or ‘break under stress’
I love such quirky, illogical, counter-intuitive, imprecise aspects of language: I get a big kick out of the fact that such words exist, and that we’ve created a word for them.
And the fact that language is often like this is one of the main reasons listening well is so important. Contronyms are simply an extreme example of the potential for misunderstanding inherent in any conversation. It’s so easy to assume you understand what someone is saying…and miss what they’re actually saying.
If, instead, we were to approach every conversation assuming we really don’t know what the person is thinking or what they intend, and then get very curious about finding that out – I’m convinced about 90% of our misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and mis-matched expectations would simply evaporate.
Contronyms (and other slippery words) would lose their power to confuse – and speaking would become a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier.
What do you think?
As you have probably figured out by now, I love language. I find the entire subject fascinating: as a writer, looking for exactly the right word or phrase to capture a particular idea or feeling; as a parent and grandparent observing and participating in the development of kids’ speech; as a language learner, reflecting on how different languages are constructed and how they embody and convey their culture; and as a student of human behavior, noticing how language is equally likely to be a source of clarity and a source of confusion.
I was just thinking about this today – how easy it is to misinterpret others’ words. It’s especially easy when one word or phrase can mean two very different things. A timely example:
May Day on May 1 is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures.
Mayday is an emergency procedure word used internationally as a distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It derives from the French venez m’aider, meaning “come help me“.
Imagine the confusion that could result from the use of this simple phrase with a non-native English speaker – especially one who knew one of the meanings, but not the other!
That’s why it’s so important to communicate clearly – but perhaps even more important toget curious about how your communication is received. If you do that, you’ll be better able to ‘unpack’ the misunderstanding to achieve real communication.
For example, here’s something I’ve seen many times over the years. A manager communicates a direction, and then doesn’t get the desired result. The most common response: say it again. This is a particular problem with managers who are smart and articulate – they almost always just repeat their message, trying to be a little smarter and more articulate.
But this is probably not going to help: it’s unlikely they didn’t hear you the first time, and it’s unlikely that simply saying it again is going to make a difference.
Instead, I suggest you get curious about how the person heard you, and then you can work to resolve the misunderstanding. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is just to ask the other person to share what they’ve understood. You don’t want to sound (or be) condescending, so it’s a good idea to “preview” your question by sharing why you’re asking it. Here’s how that might sound:
“When I said, ‘this as a real may day situation,’ I was surprised that you started putting together flower baskets. What’s your understanding of what I was saying?”
“I thought we were in agreement about the bonuses, but the memo that went out didn’t reflect what I thought we were going to do. What’s your understanding of our agreement?”
Getting curious about the other person’s understanding, when there’s been a disconnect, is not only the most efficient way to get back on the same page – it’s an eminently respectful and collaborative way to do it.
Have a great May Day (the flower basket kind)…
Till next time,