Category Archives: Strategy

I’m not one for loaded words, but people seldom listen otherwise.

The Importance Of Experimentation

 

I was just leafing through the book ‘Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It’ by Chris Voss, and an excerpt from this book has an interesting learning for us all:

‘For more than three decades, Harvard had been the world epicenter of negotiating theory and practice. All I knew about the techniques we used at the FBI was that they worked. In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we’d designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn’t have grand theories.

Our techniques were the products of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed. It was an iterative process, not an intellectual one, as we refined the tools we used day after day. And it was urgent. Our tools had to work, because if they didn’t someone died’

Needless to say, theoretical discussions come from a fear of getting actions wrong and having to face consequences – an irrationality that is a fundamentally human desire of minimising risk.

And while it is easy to highlight the importance of action and experimentation over theoretical discussions, I’d rather share with you my little system of how to get to it!

  1. Do, don’t discuss: Experiment. Instead of discussing what could work, just run with one of the plans.
  2. Take notes: Note down what you did, the results and your inferences.
  3. Find out what works: Best practices are more relevant and practical than theoretical discussions. Keep them handy.
  4. Change what’s working: This bit is hard when we usually have a ‘Don’t fix what’s not broken’ mentality. I think its easy to settle in a routine that is working. But there might be a better one, who knows? You might as well look for it.
  5. Repeat

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Before that, Step 0: Get rid of fear

Happy experimenting!

 

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Courage Trumps Content

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We do not remember the greatest people in the world simply because of what they said, or what they stood for. We remember them for having the courage to stand for it.

For having the courage to have a view that was different. And having the courage to say it out loud. Having the courage to be branded by it.

If MLK Jr. had written about his dream in his personal journal, he would have touched nobody’s life.

If Muhammad Ali was more concerned with sounding smart than true, his poetry would remain unheard.

If Nike was worried about offending sensibilities, it would not become the landmark that it is today. Neither would the legendary Superbowl ad from Apple become what it is today, if they thought they might hurt a certain group of people.

So, do us all a favour please, if you have something good to say – then say it like you mean it. We might love you for it. You might change our world for the better. And you might be remembered for it.

But if you’re not going to go all guns blazing with what you believe. Or if you fear what you will be remembered for. Or fear that you shall be typecast. Or narrowed down. Or you would rather be loved just a little bit by everyone, rather than loved to bits by a few – then please, don’t say it at all.

Just  go home.

Demystifying Strategy

In all my interactions with mangers, consultants and a whole lot of other folk in the field of business, I find a common problem: We love using big words. It appears as though each specialisation has made a gentleman’s club of sorts, to which you can gain entry only by using the right language. The problem with this is that it alienates what we do from each other, and doesn’t really help direct business collectively: simply because we don’t speak the same language. As service providers, it often makes it hard for clients to understand the value of what we do, particularly startups and non-profits who aren’t accustomed to corporate language.

One of the most loaded words I have heard repeatedly; and often needlessly, used is: “strategy” or “strategic”If we really break down “strategy” it is simply the shortest line between where we are and where we want to go. “Tactics”as we like to differentiate in jargon is what we should do to get there. 

A mentor of mine taught me well when he said: “There are only two kinds of strategy in the world: audit and directional” I’m going to use this idea to bring to light what “strategy” really is, which I hope unburdens the word:

1. Audit: Facts. Analysis. Information. Data. “What’s the situation?”, “What’s good, and bad?”, “Who’s strong, who’s weak?” The stuff we learn in B-School: SWOT, PESTLE, Porter’s Five Forces and all the other models: these are simply audit. These only tell you where you are today, and give you an indication of where you should be going. This is not difficult to do, and don’t really help any organisation figure out how to get anywhere. This is never enough, and therefore it is not strategic. The key to doing this right is to be relevant to decision making.

2. Directional: Insights. Recommendations. Decisions. Plans. “We need to gain new competencies if we want to achieve this end. Do we develop them, or acquire them?”, “We need a new product in our portfolio, priced at a point that makes our star product more appealing”, “We need to do something interesting, or risk being forgotten”. These give an indication of where we should be headed, and by nature give clarity to steps on what we should do.

One last thing. My mentor always followed his line with: “Don’t give me an audit. I want direction”.

Questions Are Your Answers

Another irrational human behaviour that also plagues management: Jumping to solution, rather than perfecting the understanding of the problem.

From a human perspective, I think the problem here lies in the fact that people can be somewhat restless and want to quickly get down to doing something. Perhaps this is driven by a fear that if we don’t fix the problem right away, it will get worse. So, let’s do something about it right now!

But clearly, a weak understanding of the problem will only lead to compounding the problem further. Rather, understanding the true problem can give us clarity on what to do. So, how do we get to the heart of the problem:

1. Slow down: The first thing to do is calm down. The more you look at the problem, the more you are going to want to do something about fixing it. Though this is hard, at this point it is best to stop yourself from thinking about how to fix it. Or what to do.

2. Step away: Strategy requires an external perspective. And perspective doesn’t come from standing right next to the problem. If it did, the whole consulting industry would not exist. Stepping away from the problem can often give you an outsider’s view to help identify and rectify the problem. So get away from the data, the process, the manifestations. The laptop.

3. Look for clues: Very often, a complicated problem is actually a simple problem manifested differently. The very nature of scale in management (or any long term activity) results in a small problem being amplified differently in different areas of the activity (or organisation). Fixing each manifestation is not the way to go, and this is something we are guilty of too. Work inwards, by asking questions, finding where the problems are related, and looking for clues we can actually identify a common pattern through all the different manifestations. On most occasions, I have found that this common thread is the true problem.

4. Don’t fix it yet: Work outwards and understand how fixing this problem will address various manifestations in the process, activity or organisation. Get ready for change, warn those who are involved that somethings are gonna be different. Nobody likes change, so it’s better to warn them. Align the different activities so that the manifestations can be fixed as well.

Implement your solution, watch the ripple effects pan out and top it off with a presentation with some loaded words. You’re done.

The Illusion of Busyness

I believe there are several peculiarities in human behaviour that percolate into management. Besides irrationality, I’ve also been curious about the illusion of busyness. This idea has been discussed several times, often as a plague of modern work culture. This article from Slate suggests that “Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time. It’s like being told that you’re obsolete.”

This behaviour is also reflected in managers who are constantly doing things for their company, brand or project. The flaw of this habit is simple: you’ll only get to the wrong place faster, by going wholeheartedly into something that could be wrong.

Annual plans, quarterly plans and company strategy are perhaps made with this in mind: to take a step back and have a long term view on any project but I find that with time, these too become mere operational necessities and one among many things that need to get done.

The trick is to slow down. A clarity on long term future (and more importantly the ability to get there) only needs the answer to two basic thoughts:

1. Who we are: This seemingly simple question is one to easily get wrong, while a lot of companies wrongly define the business they are actually in; a lot of mismanagement ensues. The key rests in identifying the value any pursuit creates, rather than the output it creates. Innocent smoothies are a case in point.

Innocent-About

2. Where we want to go: Very often wrongly defined as the financial motive of a company, there has to be more to this. It is a vision that doesn’t just align what we want to achieve financially, but also intangibly. It is a definition of our legacy, not our success. Nike gets it right!

Nike Mission

How we get there (or strategy as the presentations would say) is simply the shortest line between these two points.