There’s a story about a newspaper reporter who interviewed Thomas Edison as he was in the process of inventing the lightbulb. Edison had tried to create this life-changing contribution 10,000 ways – all unsuccessfully.
The reporter asked, “Mr. Edison, how does it feel to have failed 10,000 times?”
Edison looked at the man incredulously and replied, “Why, I haven’t failed. I know 10,000 ways that don’t work!”
The “Right Way” to Conduct Strategic Planning
In the late 1980s, the executives of the corporation for which I worked were sent to the American Management Association’s retreat center in Hamilton, New York. It was there that I was introduced to the framework of strategic planning. It was “the right way” to do it.
We learned about vision, mission, and values, but since most of the attendees were engineers, we really focused on the goals and action plans and how they should be developed. Goals were the “big things” we had to accomplish for the next year and were determined through debate by the most senior leaders. Once they had determined what needed to be pursued, then they broke down each goal into action plans – what was required to achieve the goal. The responsibility for developing and carrying out each action plan was then assigned to a junior leader.
In retrospect, the challenge was that there was no connection to the “why.” No compelling vision. Why did these goals matter? What would we get if we achieved them (other than the desired profitability)? And the assigned goal leaders were mostly complying with the demands of their superiors – a normal action in the command-and-control organization that was prevalent during the 1980s.
We walked away with 49 goals and 150 action plans – and spent the next year writing monthly variance reports on why we hadn’t completed any of the plans. We discovered a lot of ways that strategic planning didn’t work, but we kept doing it the same way.
My thinking evolved through my additional employment positions, I became a champion of “no more than three goals per year,” and I insisted that no, one person be coerced to be a goal champion, but that people needed to deeply care about the outcomes if they were to choose to coordinate the effort. But even that proved to be a challenge.
One client for whom I facilitated a strategic plan asked me if I could return and facilitate year 2. When I asked him how they had progressed on the action plans related to the three goals we had developed the previous year, he replied, “We didn’t accomplish any of them. We had priorities pop up and we decided to keep a list.”
When I asked him how many priorities he had on his list, he said, “170!” Few, if any, were strategic in nature and even fewer were important. They were tactical issues that required competence, discipline, and commitment to achieve them.
“Priority” was originally a French word that meant “the single, most important use of our time and resources.” Some American knuckleheads in the early 20th century pluralized it, and we have had “priorities” ever since. But if, as Bob Anderson and Bill Adams write, “Leadership is about defining what matters most,” then there must be something else at work.
As I understand this phenomenon now, my client may have been operating out of a “Reactive” mind, where leaders become highly competent at putting out fires, seeing everything as a problem or threat, driven by fear, and once the fire is put out, return to the firehouse and wait for the next alarm to ring. It’s a state of mind that’s designed to protect our identity and contain anxiety.
A 50-year “Ah-Ha!” Moment
It took me 50 years to realize that the framework of strategic planning was flawed – at least when it came to goals and action plans. Goals seemed to be aspirational in nature and there seemed to be skepticism about their ability to be achieved. Since goals are linked to a compelling vision – we must be going somewhere and know why we’re doing what we’re doing – without that vision, there’s little-to-no commitment from the people who “own” them. So the people who create the goals often do so with a “wink-wink” understanding that we’re just going through the motions and it’s okay if we don’t quite get there. There’s more compliance than commitment.
I also realized that the people creating the action plans could create specific actions for about 90 days, and then “a miracle happens” thinking entered the plan. This kind of thinking consists of elaborate action steps that get to an unresolvable position and “then a miracle happens!”
I also thought about the apparent lunacy related to action plans. Strategic planning deals with the unknown – heavily influenced by VUCA (and now BANI). During my stay at the Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, I learned that strategic leadership deals with the issues for which there is no textbook answer. If there’s no “right” answer for these challenges, then how can we develop a multi-step, predictable, action plan that is guaranteed to have us achieve our goals? We can’t. So I’ve re-thought my approach.
One of my longtime friends, Matt Stem, helped me see what could replace goals. In his leadership role, he developed a compelling vision, rolled it out to his other leaders, and achieved buy-in to the vision. Once he had that, his leaders co-developed commitments to help move towards achieving the vision.
A commitment is based on taking care of collective cares and concerns and means we’re willing to sacrifice our time and resources to achieve it. These can be generated by engaging in conversations around what we care about and are concerned about. (See my earlier post on the Anatomy of Action: https://extraordinaryleaders.org/2018/10/12/just-the-right-conversation/; and Bob Dunham, the author’s rationale in this downloadable PDF: https://researchportal.coachfederation.org/Document/Pdf/2975.pdf)
An experiment is “a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact; a scientific test in which you perform a series of actions and carefully observe their effects in order to learn about something.” (Britannica.com/dictionary)
As Simon Sinek elegantly wrote, Start with “Why?” Why are you performing the experiment? What’s the state you’re trying to get to? What happens if your experiment is successful?
Use a Proven Format
In junior high school science, we learned The Scientific Method, a way of conducting experiments. It consisted of these steps:
- Make an observation – what are you curious about? What’s worth further thought and investigation?
- Form a question – a question converts general wonder and interest to a channeled line of thinking and inquiry. Framing the “big questions” has become a primary job for leaders.
- Form a hypothesis – an informed guess at a possible answer to the question, usually in an “If…, then…” format. A hypothesis is an educated, testable prediction about what will happen. Make sure it’s clear, written in clear and simple language, and testable.
- Conduct an experiment – carefully designed and controlled that proves whether or not the hypothesis is right or wrong
- Analyze the data and draw a conclusion – conduct several trials to ensure that the results are constant
Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs
This thinking triggered my memory of “Great by Choice” by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen and their concept of “Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs.”
A bullet is “an empirical test aimed at learning what works…” Their model tracks with the scientific method:
- Fire bullets
- Assess: Did you hit anything?
- Consider: Do any of your successful bullets merit conversion to a big cannonball?
- Convert: Concentrate resources and fire a cannonball, once calibrated
- Don’t fire uncalibrated cannonballs
- Terminate bullets that show no evidence of eventual success
The authors offer their rationale:
“In the face of instability, uncertainty, and rapid change, relying upon pure analysis will likely not work, and just might get you killed. Analytic skills still matter, but empirical validation matters much more… You don’t need any special predictive ability to thrive in uncertainty. You need to marry relentless discipline with creativity, neither letting discipline inhibit creativity nor letting creativity erode discipline.”
As you face 2023, what commitments are you and your colleagues ready to make?
What experiments are you prepared to try? What matters most? Which is the most important, but not urgent? Why does this matter? What’s at stake? What do you hope to gain? And what will that get you? And what will that get you? …