Baseballs, Mars and Strategic Planning

My interest is in the Future, because
I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
Charles F. Kettering
1876-1958 American Inventor

At the foundation of most Strategic Plans there rests a simple question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years, and what must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”

That question looks like a good one. The answer will have all the attributes of a sound objective. Asking, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?” entices us to paint a picture of what we want to achieve. We can call this picture our “Vision” or “Vision Statement”, in either case it creates a target worthy of our attention.

Since these things don’t happen by accident, “What must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”, outlines our footsteps towards a rudimentary project plan. Since we know what we want to achieve, we now define the “what” and the “when” of our “To Do” list for the next few years.

Most strategic planners would agree that this question lies at the core of the strategic planning process. It is certainly the most common approach, and while sometimes the objectives we choose are overly simplistic, perhaps even ambiguous i.e., “We want to be the world leader in ‘X'”, they provide something to work towards.

And that’s the issue. Unless the next problem is addressed by some hidden assumption, this type of planning cannot succeed other than by luck, no matter much effort is put into that project plan.

Here’s the problematic snag, we cannot answer the question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?”, unless we first answer a bigger and more complex question, “Where will the World be in five years?”

Crafting a Strategic Plan is sort of like trying to get to Mars, or running to catch a baseball, you don’t go to where it is now, but to where it will be, when you finally get there.

Obvious? Of course it is. Yet most Strategic Plans make no attempt to determine where the World will be, they plan as if the World stands still in time, when in reality it is rocketing off in some unknown direction under the influence of Moore’s Law, politics, demographic trends, diminishing resources, new opportunities, aging populations, shifting alliances and a thousand other trivial and humungous forces.

If we do try to target the future, we plan for it based upon our understanding of the past. ie. Transactions have been growing at a rate of 10% per year, so we will plan for similar growth in the coming years.

New developments, “wild cards” if you wish, can erase all credibility from this type of reasoning. The rise of digital music and the ease, with which it is shared over the Internet, eroded the relevance of all historical sales figures for the music industry.

Of course, our real problem is that answering the question, “Where will the World be in five years?” is a challenge… as Yogi Berra, the great Philosopher King and sometime baseball player said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Tough? Yes, definitely. Impossible? No. Even if we choose to ignore them, there are developments we know will affect us in the future. Here are a few worthy of consideration;

The Collapse of Constraints: (The result of Moore’s Law)
Computer and telecommunication technology is going to get more powerful, faster, cheaper, more reliable, more accessible, smaller, cooler (in more ways than one), better and more convenient.

The Implications?
What technologies would you like to implement in your organization today, but can’t because of some limitation? Chances are that within the next five years, the natural advance of technology will collapse those constraints. Then what? Here are some reminders from our recent past, imminent future, their impact and possible implications;

Digital Music => Copyright => Music Industry Sales?
Telecommunications => Offshore Outsourcing => Local White Collar Work?
Voice over IP => Personal Communications => Phone Companies?
RFID => Inventory Costs => Privacy & Security?
Flat Screen TVs => Redesign of living space => Furniture Sales?

(An off topic question we might ask ourselves, “Which solutions implemented a decade ago, are the wrong solutions considering current technology?”)

The Passage of Time: (Demographics)
We’re getting older… all of us, soon the elderly will outnumber the young whippersnappers.

The Implications?
No secret here, as we get older we change in predictable ways. How do you differ from your parents? Imagine their buying habits and lifestyle rolled out as the norm. Imagine the bulk of marketing targeted at something other than teenage tastes, how does that affect your business… more importantly, the business of your clients.

Not to mention of course, the financial impact on poorly designed, naïve and idealistic Social Security programmes.

New Markets & New Competitors: (The Third World is no longer Third)
One word: China. Okay… two words: India.

The Implications?
According to some statistics, America makes up 5% of the world population and consumes 30% of the world resources. Imagine a new nation (or two), with the buying power, consumption, resources and production capability of 5-10 USAs.

Now… Can you imagine a Future where these new juggernaut nations do NOT affect your business?

These are just three of the many developments you might choose to incorporate into your strategic plan. Which ones do you factor into your planning? That depends on how far you choose to cast your attention. What could provide a threat or opportunity to your business? Or are you convinced that tomorrow is just today, plus another day?

How exactly do you factor in these future forces? There are no easy answers, yet there are lots of different approaches, tools and methodologies; from generic Scenario Planning, to Joel Barker’s Implication Wheel; from simple ‘What If’ sessions to more involved Brainstorming. The goal is not to do the impossible, we cannot predict with great accuracy what tomorrow will bring, but we can get a sense of what tomorrow might have in store for us and put together a Strategic Plan which will perform well against a handful of likely future possibilities.

No matter how we factor them in, the sooner we do it the better. As the quote at the start suggested, we’re going to live in the Future; we might as well look forward to it.

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July 17, 2008 at 10:35 am 1 comment

At the Heart of Time Management

Is reading this article the best use of your time right now?

If you can extract the core lesson contained in the above question, then not only don’t you need to read this article, but you never have to attend a course on time management. You’ve just saved a lot of time and money. You can go about your business. Good-bye.

What? You’re still reading? You mean I have to finish this article? I was just about to take a break you know. Okay. Okay. Just for you, I’ll continue, but I have a cold beer waiting on the deck, so hurry up and finish reading… I have better things to do right now.

Time Management isn’t a overly complex topic. When you get right down to it, a good time manager really only needs two sets of information.

1) Which of all the tasks we have to complete, is the most important?
And please, don’t adopt the strategy used by some psychotic managers… Everything is Priority #1!

Making everything Priority #1 isn’t possible. When everything on your plate is Priority #1, then the reality is that nothing is Priority #1.

2) How much time do you have available to do the tasks on your plate? If you have time aplenty for everything, then you don’t have a time management problem.  Please stop reading so I can leave, that beer is getting warm.

What! Still here? I can see how this is going to play out. Sigh. Okay. On we go.

Since you’re still reading, I can only assume you don’t have enough time to do everything you’ve been tasked to do. (but you have the time to read this article… weird) I won’t ask why you took on more than you can handle, that would be rude.

With more work, than time, we’re faced with a problem. We can’t do everything.

This is perhaps the most important thing to know about time management. Time Management is not about doing everything on our plate, it’s all about deciding what to do, and most importantly, what not to do.

This is where Time Management gets difficult. Prioritizing our tasks is fairly easy, some things are obviously more important than others. Identifying how much time we have, is also relatively easy, since we can start with 24 hours a day and work our way down to a more reasonable/realistic number.

Where we all have a problem is coming to the conclusion that task ‘X’ won’t be done this week, because we don’t have time for it.

Of course, to get to that point, we do need to become proficient at allocating time to the tasks we’re choosing to complete and then focusing our attention on those tasks until they are complete

The most basic tool to assist us in this, is the ‘to do’ list. We all know how that works. List the stuff we must do on top in order of priority, then the stuff we should do if we have time for them, and then at the bottom the stuff we’re unlikely to ever get done (like that rapidly warming beer on the deck).

The mechanics of the TD list aside, there’s an aspect of the TD list that’s rarely mentioned. Part of the problem we have managing ourtime is the overwhelming sense of chaos that swirls around our heads. There’s little more demotivating than the certain knowledge that we’re disorganized, that we’ll never get it all done no matter how hard we work.

This sense of constant chaos cheats us of any sense of progress towards a goal. A daily ‘To Do’ list, compiled during those few calm moments before the day starts with a rushing vengeance, is the perfect solution to our all too common panic attack.

Writing down what we have to do, immediately removes the certainty that we’ve forgotten something. It stops the constant mind juggling necessary to keep everything in memory and allows us to focus on a single task.

Time Management becomes an exhilarating experience as we strike a task off the list with a swooping flourish of a lurid purple marker (am I disclosing too much?). This is such a pleasure, that you’ll find yourself putting things on the list, just so that you can strike them off the list.

The sense of progress we didn’t have before, is now there for all to see as a flurry of purple strokes across the page.

The truth about the heart of Time Management is contained in the opening question. We can’t answer it until we know what we should be doing right now, and how much time we have available. Simple, if not easy. Now, the next thing on my list is that beer. See you later… maybe… if I have nothing better to do. I’m not kidding.

July 8, 2008 at 11:48 am Leave a comment

Out! Out! Damn Pebble!

It requires no great skill to opine on what’s wrong with the world. All we need do is go about our lives, and pay attention to all that annoys and peeves us. Like a sharp pebble caught in a sandal, wrongness is self evident at every step. Flaws aren’t silent; they whisper their presence at every turn and plead for our attention.

Only one thing takes less skill than noticing errors and that’s whining and moaning about them, that and looking to someone else, anyone else but ourselves, to make things right. It’s a habit picked we up in childhood when we lived under the protection of loving parents. It was best forgotten as we aged.

Nor is there any great intelligence necessary to imagine we know what needs doing. Even the naïve child we once were, suspected that sandals, free of pebbles, tread softer.

There are great gaps though, between seeing what’s wrong, knowing what’s right, and stepping from certain pain to possible relief. If the worried world around us is any evidence of our ability to cross them, these are insurmountable gaps. Huge gaps only ancient heroes and leaders can bridge. That is, if we believe that heroes and leaders are a thing of the past. Or worse, that no heroes or leaders lie sleeping within us.

These gaps are kept alive through no base lack of knowledge about either the problems or possible solutions. Nor is there, if our whining is any meaningful measure, a lack of desire for a world free from stony pebbles.

Yet the pebbles persist, despite our earnest wishes. Perhaps they exist because all we do is wish and pray for better times?

Removing even a pathetic pebble from a sandal requires us to do a lot more than wishing it away… we have to care enough, even for a tiny pebble, to bend down and act.

There are no guarantees here. No parents to ensure we won’t stick our hands in too fierce a fire. No warranty on the correctness of our solutions. No protection that we won’t make things worse through our actions. Never the less, action is all we have, without it, even that teeny pebble will eventually wear us down. The pebbles exist, that we have no control over. What we decide to do once the pebble gets our attention is entirely under our control.

Admittedly the real world is more complicated than mere a pebble in a sandal, but problems are still like pebbles in that they make their presence known by annoying us. And because of this, real world problems are at a distinct disadvantage… the bigger they are, the more people they annoy. And even problems the size of mountains can be shifted, one person, one pebble at a time.

The eyes that see a wrong, can see the hands to fix it.

July 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm Leave a comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Making a Date with a Crisis

Regardless of our circumstances we often share the same thoughts. The notion “It can’t happen here”, is such a common way of looking at disaster, that even Kissinger got into the act with his famous “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Humor aside, disasters happen regardless of what you had planned for the week. How badly they affect us, is determined by our ability to respond without warning to crisis situations.

The traditional approach to disaster planning is to create a methodology, install contingency plans, ensure that proper backups of crucial data are made, and place all this documentation in yellow binders on a shelf. If we’re diligent, we take it out once a year for some exercise.

This way of planning for disaster, while it provides many benefits, also contains a serious flaw. It’s not so much the cost – insurance of any type always costs money. The flaw is more subtle, but it is potentially serious enough to scuttle the best laid plan.

It is this, Disasters by their very nature, happen unexpectedly. Our success on the day is based upon how we react when we’re confused and don’t know what’s going on. Planning allows us to think through the process of what to do if (when?) something happens, before it actually occurs. That thought process alone is the central core of any contingency plan, but just thinking about it, isn’t enough. We have to go into the water before we know how to swim. We have to live it, to learn from it. Planning for the experience is not the same as experiencing the plan.

How to improve a disaster recovery plan? Given the stated nature of disasters, ‘unexpectedly and without warning’ seems like the right approach.

At 9:00am on a Monday morning, inform 50% (or a mere dozen if that would be too disruptive) of your management team, individually and personally, that they’re leaving immediately for an off site location for an emergency meeting. No prior warning. No details provided. No excuses accepted. All meetings regardless of importance are ignored. No notification to secretaries/assistants or clients allowed. All cell phones and blackberries collected. In other words, just like a real life crisis.

When they arrive via the waiting bus, they’re told of the ‘disaster’ that has taken place. They are to respond to this ‘disaster’ over the next day or two. What is the ‘disaster’? That depends on how severe you want it to be and what you think would provide the best information.

There’s a certain beauty to this exercise – NO PREPARATION IS REQUIRED. (except possibly for the bus) The Exercise starts at 9:00am when your employees are informed. NO hotel is booked – no coffee pre-ordered, no Flip Charts on site.

I already hear the objections… we need to book the hotel in advance otherwise…

Question… on the day our building is on fire, bombed, flooded, the senior exec team all killed in an air crash, captured by ninjas etc. etc. will we already have a room booked? If we cannot manage this minuscule exercise in crisis – then we are fundamentally incapable of handling a real emergency.

Back at the office the remainder of the management team can take the exercise one step further and pretend the entire off site team are victims of a disaster. This secondary exercise might be more than your organization can handle without severely impacting day-to-day operations. The alternative is to merely explain what is going on and cope with their unexpected absence for two days (week?). There is learning even this minimalist approach.

The exercise provides two benefits. First? An immediate and relatively inexpensive evaluation of how well your management team responds to an unexpected crisis.

Secondly? In a very short period of time, with minimal impact to your organization, you highlight those areas most vulnerable to the ‘disaster’ you selected. With that in hand you can now move forward to a ‘real’ contingency plan with specific objectives in mind.

The objections to this exercise are many and obvious. You can’t afford the time. The board would object. You can’t afford the negative impact to the business. Your schedule is full next week.

June 19, 2008 at 7:42 am 2 comments

Change Management Interview

Something different.

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by George Torok for his radio show Business in Motion.

It’s a one hour conversation on the topic of Change Management, you can listen to it here:

George Torok
Host of Business in Motion
www.BusinessInMotion.ca
www.Torok.biz

June 13, 2008 at 4:12 pm 1 comment

Work Flows Downhill

“The Internet ignores both political and geographic boundaries!” To anyone with even a minimal level of technical expertise, this statement is nothing more than a grade level observation. Yet if we use it as a lens to examine the future, it offers a few interesting implications. Especially if we have a minimal level of technical experience, and are living outside of what we refer to as the “third world”.

As a writer with regular columns in computer magazines for the past few decades, I receive many e-mails requesting my view of trends in IT employment opportunities. I repeatedly get asked by people who should have the answer within their reach, if the current down turn in North American IT opportunities will end… and when?

The reasons for the down turn are many: a recession, an oversupply of capability, a recent house cleaning in most IT shops worldwide, the trend to outsourcing and the real threat, the rise of off shore services in the white collar arena.

Will the downturn end? Look back to the opening line of this article… “The Internet is ignorant of both political and geographic boundaries!” now add an additional ingredient. The cost of living in third world countries is significantly less than it is here in North America and Europe.

This results in the following prediction: IT employment opportunities for particular skill sets will continue to plummet. There will be no turn-around. Technology is the great equalizer. Just as heat travels from hotter to colder, and a high pressure zone will equalize with a low pressure zone if given the chance, by eliminating the geographic boundaries, telecommunications allows “work” to seek out the most hospitable climate.

The “work” affected is not restricted to application development, it includes the following categories; Data Entry, Call Centers, Back-Office Operations, Document Imaging etc.

One response to this is… “We’ll do it better! We’ll be more efficient! We’ll use technology!” and the counter strategy is… “Anything you can do, we can do cheaper… because we have an advantage — our standard of living is lower.” Another response is to attempt to legislate a solution, which only serves to create a black market of opportunity.

There is no new force at work here. We’ve seen this happen before. People from China were shipped into NA to build the great railroads because they were cheaper than local labour. This time we’re shipping out the work, instead of shipping in the people. Exactly the same concept, just implemented differently.

The world is filled with economic inequalities; there are the Haves and the Havenots; the “1st World” and the “3rd World”. With the stated goal of working towards some sort of economic balance, we go to great lengths to provide loans to developing companies, and according to many, these loans do little to redress the balance. Meanwhile the global telecommunications network, part of which we know as the “Internet”, is becoming the unexpected solution.

Of course, there isn’t any solution which isn’t seen by some as a new and threatening problem. If you’re someone in North America who is losing, or has already “lost”, their job to a programmer in India, Pakistan, China, Poland etc. (the list is long… but then so was the imbalance) then you’ll have an understandably different view of this rising trend. From your perspective you’re losing your livelihood to an outsider, to someone who doesn’t even live in your country.

There are many who argue that off shore outsourcing is unpatriotic. That work generated in “insert country of your choice” should remain in that country. That argument, while compelling at various levels, ignores the economic reality. While there are many who only “buy” products made in their own country, there are very few who would support a boycott of sales to ALL other countries. Question? MS Windows is developed in the USA… should we stop selling it to other countries, because it has put their O/S programmers out of work?

1st law of economic entropy: Work flows from higher to lower standards of living. The Internet facilitates this process.

May 30, 2008 at 11:26 am 4 comments

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