How Would Eleven-Year-Olds Judge the Explanation of Your Strategy?

11-year-old

I recently viewed a story about Alan Alda, who you may remember is best known for the long-running M*A*S*H sitcom. He has been a frequent host of science-rich programs that focus on communicating science concepts in ways that kids can understand.

Alda tells a story in which he recalls an exchange he had, at the age of eleven, with a teacher. “What’s a flame?” he asked. The teacher replied simply and unsatisfyingly, “It’s oxidation.” He was discouraged and unenlightened about what it really meant. Decades later, Alda comments that he sees the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. So, in cooperation with Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda set up the Flame Challenge to have scientists answer his schoolboy question the best they could. The twist was that the primary judging would be done by thousands of eleven-year-olds across the country.

After sifting through more than 800 entries from 31 countries, organizers of the Flame Challenge chose the winner as a thirty-one–year–old Missouri-born researcher studying at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The grad student specializing in quantum physics has taken the prize for a cartoon that’s as entertaining as it is educational. (Check it out here.) The winner, Ben Ames, sent in a seven-minute animation that uses cartoons, songs, and a main character that stars as a long-bearded prisoner.

What does this all have to do with strategy? Strategies, like science, health, finance, and even public policy, are complex concepts often communicated by experts who have forgotten what it is like not to know! Saying it’s “oxidation” works for the sender but not the receiver. In company after company trying to communicate strategy with familiar words like “customer first,” “market leading,” or “preferred provider,” we see strategists fall into the same trap as the original explanation of what a flame is. Would you be able to convey your strategy to eleven-year-olds in a way that they could get it? What if you ran a contest and eleven-year-olds were the judges? Strategy needs to be relayed in straightforward, uncomplicated terms that resonate with a “beginner or novice” of the strategy. The importance is that you think about whether your people can distinguish the difference between knowing the name of your strategy and knowing how it really works.

Oh, by the way, Alda is asking a very deep and different question this year. It is, “What is time?” It’s going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language.


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Starting Off on the Right Foot

Staffing can be tough.  It takes a lot of effort and investment on the part of an organization to find the right person for the job you’re trying to fill.  So once you’ve put in all of that hard work, you want to make sure it was not all in vain.  The bulk of staff turnover typically occurs in the first 45 days of employment and 46% of first-time employee’s washout in their first 18 months.

So starting everyone off on the right foot is critical.  Making an employee’s first months and year as successful as possible begins before they even show up for Day 1.  And it goes far beyond just making sure they fill out all of the paperwork, pointing them to their workspace, and giving them access to the building.

Best-in-class companies take the long view to ensuring their people are set up for success.  They immerse the new people in the company’s culture and vision.  They take steps to help connect the person’s role to the company’s strategy.  They are interested in the feedback of the employee to continue improving their experience and the experiences of future hires.  It’s not a one-day or one-week process.

Not only do these approaches help reduce turnover and associated costs – they yield business benefits as well.  A comprehensive onboarding program can get new hires up to speed quicker and adding value sooner by eliminating long learning curves.  And when you get a reputation for being a great employer, you will continue to attract and retain top talent.

Want more information?  Check out this White Paper – The ROI of Onboarding: 5 Steps to Engaging and Keeping New Hires.

What Do Student Debt and Strategy Execution Have in Common?

It is estimated that 37 million Americans have student loan debt totaling $870 billion. Some estimates place the total student-debt bill at over $1 trillion, and it now eclipses total U.S. credit card debt.  There are 1.8 million students today with loans which represent 94% of all students.  In 1993 only 45% of students had loans.  While loans can top $200,000, and often translate into payments of $1,000 a month after graduation, the average student leaves school with a $23,000 bill.  The financial pressures of graduating with debt has caused three out of ten students to move back home after getting their coveted degrees.  Graduate after graduate now tells stories of spending half of their monthly salary on debt payments which means that they can’t afford other necessities like rent, transportation, etc.  Yearly higher education tuition increases of 3 – 5%, and a literal capital expenditures “arms race” to build bigger and better facilities that promote hotel-quality rooms, gourmet food, and world-class gyms and spas, are causing people to ask – is it all worth it?

Pete Thiel, the PayPal co-founder believes the bubble that hit the dotcom and the housing market is now about to hit higher education.  “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and truly believed.”  We either don’t want to, or can’t see how to, connect the dots of reality.  Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance for the future.  Theil makes the interesting point that in any good bubble, consumption masquerades as investment.  Combine the issues of escalating student debt, rising tuition costs, an out-of-control capital arms race for facilities, a reduction of available incoming students, looming student-loan bankruptcies, anemic job growth forecasts, and parents’ reluctance to take on graduate roommates… and it is not that hard to see that this bubble is about to burst.

So, what does student debt have to do with strategy execution?  It is all about elevating your thinking and seeing the big picture as an interconnected system so that you can both see and understand what external forces are causing to happen, deciding what you want to make happen, and avoiding asking what just happened. Anticipating the future is a key success factor for all organizations, profit and non-profit.

In the corporate landscape, when people see and anticipate the three big pictures of their business, they clearly understand how to connect the dots on the driving systems of their future.  They can lead the execution of change rather than be left holding the busted bubble of change.  These include understanding THE MARKETPLACE (the why) and all the driving forces of change from competitors, customers, technology, regulation, pricing, cycle time, and market commodization and new formation.  THE STRATEGY (the what) includes the critical responses we have chosen to place our bets on for the future in the ever-changing external environment that will render some players as winners and losers.  THE OPERATIONALIZATION OF THE STRATEGY (the how) is all about the way that we will execute the new strategy which includes changes in habits, practices, routines, processes, and behaviors that will bring to life the new strategy.

The bubble can burst in higher education or your business; the key is seeing the big-picture possibilities before they become so obvious that it’s too late.


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Decisions without Commitment – a Recipe for Strategic Failure

I think great performers and CEOs often have an uncanny ability to refine special skills of extraordinary anticipation and exceptional peripheral vision. A great illustrative point of that concept is hockey great Wayne Gretzy’s famous quote, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.“

In working with many CEOs over the years, there are some key areas I believe they should be mindful of as they lead forward. These are not necessarily statements of fact that must be adopted, but rather considerations for the days and months ahead that you should search your “relevance detector” to determine their appropriateness.

Resist the temptation to be seduced by the value of decisions without commitment!
The statistics are clear. More than 52% of senior executives do not believe their company’s strategy will set them up to win in the marketplace. Ironically, these are the very same strategies they have coauthored and have raised a thumb for and declared publicly “I am in.”

Decisions without commitment are meaningless, and commitment without authentic dialogue and vetting is impossible. While decisiveness is a goal, the only chance that the change will be executed will depend on the commitment of the larger group leading the change.

On the surface, it is hard to take issue with the logic of most strategic decks. But there is a huge difference between not arguing with the analytics of the deck and taking a strong position and personally advocating for a decision or your strategy for the future.

The goal is not just making a decision, but actually building the collective commitment to execute that decision with personal passion and advocacy.

When that happens, CEOs can begin to roll out a strategy they feel passionate about, have a strong conviction in, and be optimistic about its success.


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Culture vs. Strategy

I recently saw a video post from Rachel Sklar on Fast Company’s site about Culture vs. Strategy.  You may have heard the saying “Culture will eat strategy for lunch,” meaning that culture tends to be stronger in a lot of organizations than strategy.  Rachel pointed out that anyone who thinks that culture and strategy are distinct is missing the boat on strategy.  Her position is that culture is part of strategy. Watch her video.

I can totally see where she’s coming from, but I tend to think of it a little differently.  Culture along with organizational purpose is who you are.  This is why culture tends to be one of the most enduring things in organizations.  After all, evolving who you are – embarking on culture change –doesn’t happen without self-reflection, discovery, and commitment.  Strategy is how you’re going about getting to the future.  So, in simplistic terms, I think of Culture, Strategy, and Vision like this graphic to the right.

I do agree with Rachel that Culture vs. Strategy is the wrong question.  Success in organizations is usually determined by how well and how fast an organization is reaching its desired future state (in the graphic, VISION).  The best way to accelerate the pace to your vision is to align your culture and strategy so that they are in lock-step.  This is where I believe Rachel and I really agree.

Think of this in personal terms for a minute.  Let’s say your vision is to become the President of the United States.  You can have the strongest field organization for your campaign, have great messaging on policies, and travel every day meeting people for a year –all elements of your strategy to win.  But if the essence of who you are at your core doesn’t love getting up every day and meeting new people, being curious about new things and new topics, enjoying problem solving on the fly, and responding well under pressure and constant change (all elements of who you are at your core), then it will be pretty hard to get to your vision.

We can debate what qualities are really required to win the presidency, and I’m not pretending to have the answers on that : ).  But achieving your future vision is a smoother and more effective ride when your culture and your strategy are aligned.  This means that they go well together.  They support each other.  They are well suited to one another.

Organizations whose strategy is at odds with their culture should think twice, as it’s easier to change strategies than to change culture.  However, sometimes culture change is the right choice to make.  If the culture is full of unhealthy practices, success will be difficult with any strategy.  In this case, pursuing the hard work of culture change is paramount for long-term success.   And there are times when a strategy is so compelling that to not evolve the culture to fit it is just plain short-sighted.   So, whether you’re thinking about a vision for yourself or your organization, consider these questions:

Are you clear about the vision you want to achieve?  How do you define your desired future state?

Are you clear about who you are and the strengths of your culture?

Are you clear about how you’re going after getting to the future?  Which strategy (or strategies) are you embarking on to pursue your success?

Drop me a line with your thoughts.  I’d love to continue the conversation that Rachel started for us!


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Plan a People Strategy like a Product Strategy

The first thing you might be thinking is – what is a people strategy?  What I mean is a company-wide strategy or a division initiative rollout, for example.  You need people to make those things happen successfully.  The interesting part of that process? A people strategy is going to have a greater magnitude of impact than a mere product launch.  Don’t worry, I’m not dissing the importance of a product launch – I know it keeps the lights on and people in their jobs!  What I’m getting at is that at most companies a company-wide launch of a new initiative or strategy typically doesn’t involve nearly the level of planning that goes into a product launch.  And that’s probably not a good thing.

Think about what usually goes into product development planning and then the rollout of that product to the market.  Your engineers, product developers, software programmers, product marketing, and customer service teams, to just name a few groups, do a ton of research, put together project plans, build the product, develop messaging and marketing materials, finalize pricing, and educate the sales force and the front line.  This is a HUGE endeavor and it takes months (or even years) to get all of the pieces in place.

Now think about the last time your company rolled out its new 5-year plan or announced a new strategic initiative that is designed to help the company grow significantly.  What went into that rollout?  If it was like many of the strategy deployments I’ve been involved in at other companies over the years, it probably went something like this:

  • The CEO announced the new strategy at an all-company meeting.
  • Maybe there was a follow-up email that went out to the whole company reinforcing some of the key points that the CEO discussed.
  • Some training was given to the department that was going to have the biggest impact on that strategy – in most cases, the sales team.
  • Then that was it… until the next new strategy was announced by the CEO at an all-company meeting

Now,  there are varying incarnations of company strategy rollouts; some may look like my past experiences and some may involve a bit more than what I listed.  But in all likelihood, it doesn’t involve the time and effort that companies put into a product launch.  Check out this video from Root president and client fanatic, Rich Berens, as he talks in more detail about treating your company strategy like a consumer product launch strategy.

Let me know what your last company strategy launch looked like; I’d love to hear about it!


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