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26 January 2010 • 10:51 am

Inevitable Lurches

The last couple of weeks have seen a coincidence of two sudden, massive, and mostly unexpected lurches. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that has devastated Haiti is human tragedy on a scale rarely seen (until one recalls the 2004 Asian tsunami), and was certainly not anticipated by the island’s millions of residents. Nearly as unanticipated was the lurch in the U.S. political landscape, marked by the GOP’s victory in the special election in Massachusetts and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn limits on corporate participation in election campaigns. I am closely following the aftermath of both Haiti and U.S. politics, since the response to unanticipated change reveals much about the health of the organizations involved.

(I write of Haiti and U.S. politics together only to illustrate a point, and not to imply any comparison between these events. I hope that you will join me and millions of others who have already contributed to one of the many organizations leading Haiti’s earthquake relief efforts.)

In my experience, organizational preparedness for major, unexpected changes varies widely. Most organizations pay lip service, with little more than rueful acknowledgement of the possibility of disruption. Some develop ‘business continuity’ plans, which are targeted at sustaining key assets and processes, like computer systems and networks, in the event of catastrophe. Far fewer have a comprehensive, robust capability to weather the literal and figurative storms of unknown and unexpected events. The most effective organizations prepare not for specific disasters, but with a well-tested process for making effective strategic and tactical decisions in the face of sudden, significant, unexpected change.

Every organization’s strategy is the result of its mission, its internal capabilities, and its external environment. Over time, mission and capability are likely to evolve to reflect the changing realities of the external environment. The normal strategic planning process, when properly executed, entails continuous monitoring of environment and management of capability and strategy itself. Sudden change in the external environment requires rapid and confident recalibration of the strategy. The decision making process is the same, only the time scale is different.

The difficulty with which most organizations mange and execute strategy means that they are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable lurches. Fingers are pointed, emotions flare, poor decisions are made, and must be made again, efforts are wasted, and chaos reigns. By contrast, healthy organizations quickly pick themselves up, look around to understand the new realities, quickly make well-informed decisions, and get on with the urgent tasks at hand.

How will your organization handle the next lurch?

13 November 2009 • 7:00 am

Embarrassing Public Radio Strategic Plan Leaked to Public

WBEZ - Chicago Public RadioI am a big fan of public radio, and my local station in Chicago, WBEZ. I don’t always agree with their programming decisions, but for over 25 years they have been my primary source for thoughtful and intelligent programming, both locally-produced and nationally syndicated. So it was with more than just professional interest yesterday that I read the following anonymous blog entry (emphasis and links added) on WBEZ’s Facebook page – I’m a stakeholder. more

13 October 2009 • 7:00 am

Turning Sense into Dollars – Part IV (Conclusion)

In the previous posts, I introduced a case which offers a practical, real world example of how risk analysis can enrich the strategic planning process.  We learned of PrimeCorp (a disguised name), a large company with a national presence in the U.S., and met Jim and Curtis, PrimeCorp’s head of Strategic Planning and CEO, respectively. If you haven’t read Parts I through III of this series of posts, please do so now. It contains background needed to understand this post.

Outcomes at PrimeCorp

As a result of the risk-adjusted forecasts, both the baseline and with leadership expectation of the impact of the proposed strategic management system, PrimeCorp had satisfactorily completed its cost-benefit analysis and projected payback. Curtis (PrimeCorp’s CEO) soon thereafter approved the project as proposed, and our work was underway. Working closely with Jim (PrimeCorp’s head of strategic planning), we undertook to transform the way in which PrimeCorp managed its strategy. The transformation took about two years.

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9 October 2009 • 3:26 pm

Turning Sense into Dollars – Part III

In two previous posts, I introduced a case which offers a practical, real world example of how risk analysis can enrich the strategic planning process. We learned of PrimeCorp (a disguised name), a large company with a national presence in the U.S., and met Jim and Curtis, PrimeCorp’s head of Strategic Planning and CEO, respectively. If you haven’t read Parts I and II of this series of posts, please do so now. It contains background needed to understand this and the following post.

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6 October 2009 • 7:00 am

Turning Sense into Dollars – Part II

In the previous post, I introduced a case which offers a practical, real world example of how risk analysis can enrich the strategic planning process. We learned of PrimeCorp (a disguised name), a large company with a national presence in the U.S., and met Jim and Curtis, PrimeCorp’s head of Strategic Planning and CEO, respectively. If you haven’t read Part I of this series of posts, please do so now. It contains background needed to understand this and the following posts.

The Different Approach

We already knew that a key element of PrimeCorp’s existing strategic planning process was its financial forecasts. The annual planning book (hundreds of pages, highly confidential, and not shared beyond the executive team), contained page after page of spreadsheets describing past and expected future performance of each of PrimeCorp’s several divisions, as well as an enterprise-wide roll-up of the numbers. The executive team, which consisted of the heads of each division (as well as such corporate functions as HR Finance, and IT) annually created their individual division forecasts as a function of past performance, and their own expectations of the next five years of future results. This process was time-consuming and filled with understandable tension – between division leaders’ desire to soft-peddle the numbers, and CEO and board pressure to raise revenue and manage costs to achieve year-over-year improvement in profitability.

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5 October 2009 • 7:00 am

Turning Sense into Dollars – Part I

Continuing our introduction of the element of risk into strategic planning, your humble correspondent now endeavors to share a practical, real world example of how risk analysis can enrich the strategic planning process. A caution – some basic mathematics are involved, but I’ll try as best as possible to avoid the use of jargon. And at the end of the case, I’ll offer a tool and an hour of telephone-based guidance on how to apply this tool in your organization for FREE to the first five readers who respond to the offer – with no strings attached.

A few years ago, I was faced with a unprecedented challenge by a client, to attach a dollar value to the benefit of a proposed consulting engagement. The details of the organization are not important to the concepts in the case, but suffice to say I was hungry for the opportunity to consult to this large organization.

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1 October 2009 • 7:00 am

Risky Business

coin_flipAs promised a couple of weeks ago, I’ve now gotten a copy of Sam L. Savage’s The Flaw of Averages from my local library. Although I am still reading it, I can already say that it is an enjoyable read, accessible, and contains a wealth of valuable insights that I’ll be sharing with you. I’ll be buying my own copy soon, and encourage you to take a look at it as well. It has already gotten me thinking more about how much better we need to understand the concept of risk.

We have all grown up in an era in which computing technology has had an increasing influence on the way we think about pretty much everything. In my first year of high school, slide rules were required for those taking physics classes. By the time I took the physics class (in my senior year), we were able to instead share the one calculator the school had bought for each classroom in the physics department. I suspect that some of today’s technologies will someday be as outdated as slide rules are today. If you don’t even know what a slide rule is, don’t worry (but you can read more about it here).

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24 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Strategy by Walking Around

passion-for-excellence1

Many years ago, there was a bit of a surge in the management buzzword stream of an idea called Management by Walking Around (MBWA). Although the idea is traced to early days at Hewlett Packard, where managers were encouraged to spend their time visiting employees, customers, and suppliers, the idea was popularized in an 1985 book by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin entitled “A Passion for Excellence.” Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of the book or MBWA; my sense is that the idea has been out of the mainstream for a while. Perhaps the walking around concept became obsolete around the time that telecommuting became possible and popular.

I think that walking around can be effectively applied in the arena of strategic management. Few executives that I’ve interviewed in the course of developing organizational strategy have disagreed with the prediction that I’d get many different answers if I were to separately ask managers and employees to describe their organization’s strategy. So walking around and asking the strategy question is a useful diagnostic; a way of creating a sense of urgency around formulating and communicating strategy across the enterprise.

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21 September 2009 • 7:00 am

What’s Your Proposition?

Amazon is shaking up retailers, both big rivals and small independent stores, as it speeds its way beyond books toward its goal of becoming a Web-sized general store. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Amazon is shaking up retailers, both big rivals and small independent stores, as it speeds its way beyond books toward its goal of becoming a Web-sized general store. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Try to imagine the largest bookstore in the world. Aisle after aisle, floor after floor of books, maps, audio books, music, video, you name it (if you’ve ever had the unique and wonderful experience of visiting Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, you’ve got a great visual image to begin with). But this bookstore isn’t limited by physical size, or shelf space or inventory cost; it carries nearly every title in print, and a huge back catalog of used and out-of-print books. And in the unusual case where they don’t have the book you want in stock, they can try to get it for you from other stores or the publisher. Every time you enter this store, you’re immediately recognized and greeted by name at the door, and your personal guide stands ready to recommend books and other goods you might be interested in. Of course, you don’t have to get in your car to visit this store, it is as near as your computer. Of course, the largest bookstore in the world is Amazon.com.

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15 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Good Morning. Do You Know What Your Workforce Will Do Today?

An important element of the strategic planning process is the management of the organization’s projects and initiatives in the context of strategic and operational objectives. Collectively, these discretionary activities account for only a small portion of labor expended in the organization, compared with that expended in the execution of normal business processes. But the discretionary allocation of labor and time is the necessary domain of management, yet management all too often doesn’t know what the workforce is actually doing.

A crucial step in driving alignment with strategy after the strategy itself has been established is to capture the activities (projects, initiatives, call them what you will) that are already underway. A matrix of the strategic initiatives against the strategic objectives almost always reveals opportunities to improve alignment; initiatives that don’t map well to objectives, objectives with no initiatives, and in some cases, objectives with too many initiatives.

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