Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: May 2012

Stop Looking For The Right Answer – There ARE no right answers

As human beings, we are instilled, very early on, with the concept of right and wrong. “Don’t do this”, “no, that’s wrong”, “this is the right answer”. And we carry that concept forward into everything we do. We forever are seeking the simplicity of that duality – do the right things, avoid the wrong ones. This approach, in general terms, can be very helpful for our well-being and success. It’s right to eat healthy. It’s wrong to spend all your money on lottery tickets. It’s right to take showers. It’s wrong to throw gasoline on a fire. And ethical rights and wrongs keep society working relatively harmoniously.

But when it comes to more complex issues, like, specifically, business problems, I believe we over-use the concept of right vs. wrong – by expecting to find the right answer when there are really only shades of gray. Aiming for the “right” solution to problems like these is not the “right” approach. Instead, my recommendation is to aim for good – and then build like hell towards great.

Why do I say this?

Using the binary “right” or “wrong” causes you to find fault with everything. If you’re seeking the surety of choosing what is “right”, then you naturally will be focused on what’s wrongwith ideas, first. Your mind will search for why ideas won’t work, where they fall down, what’s incomplete or errant about them – instead of focusing on what is good and beginning to build. You’ll be amazed at how many good ideas (and good team members) this mind-set will burn through. Because, while you’re busy looking only for the “right” answer, you’ll speed past lots of very good ones along the way.

And the fact is, everything has things that are wrong with it. There are no perfect ideas, plans, solutions. There are only good ones – that then need to be made real, built upon and “stratecuted” for the real world. Because, let’s not forget, that we’re still talking about a strategy, a plan, an idea – it’s just a hypothesis at this point.

You’ll naturally discount any ideas or answers you come up with quickly. If you are looking for the right answer, you’ll likely believe that it can only be found and developed after lots of wrong ones are purged from your mind. You will devalue anything you came up with quickly as too obvious, too hasty, too light-weight. But this is often far from the case. Many creative thinkers believe their first ideas are best. And coming up with a good idea fast gives you more time to build it and make it even better.

Sometimes it’s more important to do something than nothing. One thing about waiting around for the “right” answer to your problem – during that time, you are doing nothing. I have been on teams that spent enormous effort to over-confirm and over-perfect a plan or an idea through excessive testing, vetting and layered approvals to make sure it was right. But, as General Patton said,“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week”. Your problem is almost surely addressed better by starting to attack it with a good idea and gaining momentum and learning in the real world. As I’ve written about before, great solutions generally take some time to develop and nurture in the real world.

The safety of “right” is a false one.  Here’s another thing to consider – what is “right” in theory can end up “wrong” in real life. As I mentioned, our ideas and plans and solutions are hypothetical – until we make them real. Lots of things impact the in-market realization of these plans. This includes some things in your control, like the execution and real-world activation of your ideas, as well as even more things outside of your control, like the activities of your competitors, the European economy or the unseasonable weather. So, as sure you are of the right-ness of your plans, you can’t really be sure.

What do you guys think? Are there really “right” ideas? Am I “wrong”? Have I beaten this to death yet?

Evolution is Mandatory – The new normal demands iteration, evolution and adaptation

The only constant is change. Heraclitus

No matter how much you learn, experience and know, there’s only one thing you can be truly certain of. Things change. It’s the one thing that’s always true, the one constant in a dynamic world. No matter how smart you are, how far you’ve traveled, how much you’ve figured out – you can’t stand still. And you can’t expect the world to do so, either.

Things are changing at an even greater and greater pace today. What we used to hold true is now passé, deeply regarded facts and beliefs are history, business models disrupted daily.

And the real world has gotten more complex. Technology, speed, fragmentation all make doing things both easier and more difficult at the same time. Collaboration and co-opetition complicating how you work and who you work with. And the rise of data and analytics driving the need for nimbleness and reactivity.

But I’m here to tell you that evolution and iteration were always part of doing great work. And it’s time to recognize it, embrace it and dive in. Stratecution, anyone?

Reality doesn’t do what you want it to do. Here is the main reason I regard execution as highly as strategy – because strategy is developed in the boardroom, but execution is designed for the real world. No matter how brilliant your strategy, it’s just a hypothesis. A smart framework for doing. And having a great strategy still can’t bend reality to its will. So you have to be prepared for learning and evolving your plan and your actions to fit the realities you face. Because the real world has lots of factors you can only guess about – or can’t possibly plan for at all. What the competition is doing, what’s happening with the economy, what the weather might do to sales. These are all factors that will evolve your execution, strategy notwithstanding.

The real world is just plain messy. You can start any project with a simple strategic model, but by the time you’re through executing it, it’s likely to be quite different than you’d imagined. And no matter how well you think you know your target audience, they are much more complex than “Women 18-49”, or “Lapsed Users”.  You’ll no doubt learn as you go that your plan will require more layers to your efforts and communications for different constituents, more phases of follow-ups you never expected, and additional types of contacts than you’d prepared. Efficiency be damned.

Learning and adaptation are key. Data is driving an even greater need for evolution. We can now know more about the impact of our efforts, as we implement them. While we used to wait for an after-the-fact evaluation of success or failure via some rear-view mirror research – we now are taking the pulse of our performance, day in and day out. So you better believe you’re going to have to iterate and evolve, based on learning. Standing pat on your in-going activities in a set-it-and-forget-it way, despite on-the-ground learning, is not only out-dated. It’s a plan for failure.

This is why live testing of approaches and ideas is so hugely important – because you just can’t know what works in advance. So take some different approaches to market and learn what works best, in real conditions with real people in real life.

Real time is the norm. Speaking of real, real time is now the norm. Consumers expect the world to be at their beck and call. Data at their fingertips, entertainment on every screen when they want it, customer service 24/7. So you better be prepared to deliver. Don’t enter into Social Media or start tweeting in the way you used to create a TV commercial – with a one-off and a wait-and-see. Be available, be adaptive, be real time.

Collaboration makes ideas better. Working together is the norm, nowadays. More people are involved in bringing communications programs to life than ever imagined. The traditional “creative team” now includes lots more people, proving creativity does truly come from anywhere – media agencies, technologists, content partners, etc. So be prepared to collaborate and iterate. Where an idea starts doesn’t necessarily indicate where it will end up. Which is a good thing – as long as you are open to evolution. Collaboration makes ideas better, so get ready or get out of the way.

I think it’s about time people understood that everything is iterative. The new world and the new way of working demand it. So don’t resist it – evolution and change are good. For ideas and for you.

What do you think? Love to hear your thoughts.

Why, Oh Why – In praise of the question “why?”

Nancy Willard once said, “Questions are more important than answers” (I’ve also written on the importance of asking questions). And, as Seth Godin points out, the most important question you can ask is “Why?” “Why?” is the mother of all questions.  And it isn’t asked nearly enough.

“Why” is important for so many reasons. It’s a clarifier, a disrupter, a teacher, and an excavator. Asking “why?” means you’re plugged in, interested, and digging deeper.  And it helps you on the back-end, by focusing and defining success.

7 ways “Why?” helps you:

  1. It demonstrates attentiveness and active listening. If you, or someone else, asks the question “why?” it means they have been involved, engaged and listening. That they want to know more, to understand better, or to torture-test thinking. And that they care. This, in itself, is a very good sign.
  2. It demands a thoughtful response.“Because” is not an acceptable answer to “Why?” One must think clearly in response to the question. They will have to elucidate their rationale and reasons. It may even cause folks to think more deeply than they had prior to the question – and even get them to re-think what they’d previously thought or done.It’s even good to ask yourself the question “why?” “Why did I do that?”, “why do I want that?”, “why do I think that?”  This helps you clarify your own thinking – and may help you to re-think some assumptions you’ve made about yourself.
  3. It can break through rote or formulaic behaviors. Even the worst statement in the world – “because that’s the way we do it here” – can be broken down by asking “why?” “Why?” questions assumptions, routines and automated processes and demands that they answer to basic questions of relevance, appropriateness and effectiveness.
  4. It digs deeper. People often ask, “what happened?” They hear about situations, actions, activities, experiences. People talk about the steps they took and who said what. They point to results, figures, data and percentages. But they stop there. They don’t dig into why any of this happened. “Why?” seeks underlying truths and insights – it forces you to dig below the surface. “Why?” forces people to peel back the layers until they arrive at true understanding.
  5. “Why?” helps clarify decision-making and success criteria. Once you’ve dug in and answered the core “why’s?” of any assignment or project, you can lay out exactly what the decisions will be based on – does the solution and our actions answer to the “why?” of the project? If they don’t, there’s no reason to proceed. And, similarly, you can begin to define the KPI’s and success metrics of your project – what are the measures that answer to “why?”.
  6. “Why?” is a great teacher. When you ask “why?” of someone (a direct-report, especially), you are, in essence, holding them accountable. They need to define the rationale for their thoughts and actions. This helps them understand and learn, for the next time.
  7. It demonstrates curiosity. I’ve said this before, as well, but curiosity is a very good thing. Asking “why?” demonstrates curiosity – and what’s better than that? You’re engaged in expanding your mind, your understanding. And you’re interested in actively learning. Bravo!

We hear kids asking “why?” all the time. But, over time, we begin to stop asking it. And we stop gaining from the power of the question.

Let me know your thoughts and questions? Including why I wrote this…

Trying To Turn Lemons Into Orange-ade – Why do so many companies try to steer people away from what they’re good at?

Imagine the following scenario, if you will: A record executive comes up to Mick Jagger some years ago and says “You’ve got a good, rough, blues voice and you know how to get the crowd excited with your swagger. But you need to work on your enunciation, and the quality of your voice can get a bit pitchy, so please work on that.” I know, it’s pretty ridiculous. But that’s almost exactly what lots of company leaders do to talent on their teams.

It happens all the time – you hear things like, “Mike is highly strategic, very insightful and is great at building off of ideas… but he needs to get better at these other things”.  Or worse, “… he doesn’t fit the culture”. Time and time again, I hear about people being told to be something else, to be more like the current management style and culture, instead of finding ways to leverage what they’re particularly good at.

For example, I knew a senior Strategic Planner who was exceptionally quick at distilling marketing and consumer dynamics and data, great at ideating, and extremely deep in experience in almost all categories you could imagine. A perfect combination of talents for a senior Strategic Planner. Except he was expected to run a department and align with the leaders’ office politics, which he was not so good at. So, after briefly trying to make him good at what he wasn’t, he was pushed out. Despite the fact that his strategic acumen and instincts could have been a great value on numerous occasions.

Naturally, there are lots critical skills that are critical for anyone to develop. Like learning to collaborate, being respectful, getting your work done on time, delivering on your projects, watching costs and efficiency. And if you’re managing people, you need to learn how to do that successfully and productively. But when you find people particularly strong at something that really helps your company deliver on its core business, isn’t the best scenario to find ways to take advantage of them?

Why on earth push an incredibly creative person to be good at paperwork? Or tell the highly analytical person they need to learn how to lead a lateral-thinking exercise? That person who is bringing in tons of new business – let them continue doing that. But some companies seem to have an irrational desire to make everyone the same as everyone else.

Instead of doing that, do this:

  • Celebrate diversity.No matter how codified your culture is, no matter how articulated your company’s “vision statement” is, no matter how long the core leadership have worked together to build the business, having folks different from each other is a good thing. Diversity drives innovation, diversity drives fresh thinking, diversity drives creativity. So don’t try to make everyone like everyone else. Instead, recognize that having people particularly good at different things is even better.And be leery whenever someone says, “she doesn’t fit our culture” or “he’s wrong for the agency”. That’s generally code for “they’re different” – which, to my way of thinking, should be a good thing.
  • Organize around the output you want. If you have someone at your company who is particularly good and helpful in areas that make a huge difference for your company, it makes sense to find ways to leverage it. And if they don’t fit the current job description, structure or process model, maybe it’s worth considering altering them. It’s just silly to have processes and organizational structure that aren’t designed to facilitate the key aspects of your company’s output.
  • Leverage over-sized muscles. If someone happens to favor one “muscle” over another, don’t necessarily force them to balance it out with other muscles. Consider leveraging that out-of-proportion strength. This could lead to out-of-proportion successes, as well.
  • Find roles for exceptional people. Some people just aren’t going to fit traditional roles or traditional skill sets. But if they’re singularly good at what they do, seek ways to keep them doing it – in whatever kind of role might work.

Companies need generalists who can make the whole organization run, and can see the whole playing field and know how to tap the right resources at the right time. But the quirky “lemon” who is discounted because he doesn’t also make orange-ade? Think about ways that his lemon-ness might help the company succeed.

What do you guys think?

Strategy is dead – thank you, Kevin Roberts

“Strategy is dead. Who really knows that is going to happen anymore in this super VUCA world? The more time and money you spend devising strategies the more time you are giving you rivals to start eating your lunch.”

Apparently Kevin Roberts reads the blog!


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