The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
The business and management equivalent of The Quest of mythology and story is the pursuit of the secret ingredients…the behaviors, actions and approaches that if adopted, will allow one firm to outperform (measured by one or more of: growth, profitability, share price, innovation, market capitalization) a peer group for an extended period of time.
Jim Collins has been looking for it since Good to Great and the McKinsey team in the study that culminated in the book, Beyond Performance, by Keller and Price purports to have cracked the genetic code of this vexing riddle.
As Jim Collins documented in subsequent works to Good to Great, there are ample reasons why many of the original great firms are no longer great, good…and some are gone. And while Keller and Price with help from thousands of McKinsey professionals appear to have mapped the genetic code of sustained performance, it’s not clear at all what portion of the details of the code (the levers and behaviors) must be manipulated or optimized in order to ensure ongoing success, particularly as external circumstances change. It depends.
And yes, external circumstances always change, introducing dragons and demons and foes bent on keeping our heroes (you and your colleagues) from achieving the over-arching goal of your quest.
Of Dragons and Demons and Foes in Pursuit of Sustained High Performance:
Every great quest has a series of foes that must be vanquished along the journey to success and business is no different.
- Long-term success naturally breeds hubris and arrogance…or at least the laziness, that so easily catches management teams off guard as conditions change. In this world where even the concept of change is changing (speed, technology, location), disruption of existing industries, technologies and business models happens both quietly and noisily…and often quickly.
- Another silent but deadly foe is the Dominant Logic described by Prahalad, where all situations, including those that arise based on a new set of forces are viewed through the knowledge and decision-making lenses formed based on prior experience. As the field changes…or at least as the rules change on that field, the lenses that offered so much clarity before introduce a type of strategic myopia that filters out new external forces and leads to decisions that worked yesterday but fail to hunt today or tomorrow.
- And much like the Sirens of Titan who lured sailors to their deaths with their seductive song, business success created by a rising tide…secular growth seduces management teams into believing that their decisions are responsible for their results, more so than the market. When the rise slows or reverses, these teams are left floundering on the rocks.
7 Key Behaviors For Surviving and Thriving on the Quest to Sustain Success:
In great quest stories, there’s typically something that aids the hero and his or her compatriots. A talisman of some sort or a wise mentor. (Think Gandalf, Yoda, Obe Wan or Dumbledore in the quest stories of fantasy.) While we may have wise mentors in the form of senior leaders or board members, the quest for sustained success requires at a minimum a set of behaviors on the part of the firm’s leaders and managers that acknowledges the realities and risks…the perils of this journey.
Just a few of these incredibly helpful behaviors include:
1. Collective respect across the management team for the complexities and risks of translating what worked yesterday into something that works tomorrow. This is an absolute. It requires the collective confidence to move beyond old practices and strategies and to encourage and reward reinvention. This attitude is critical in combating the sin of hubris and for preventing arrogance from taking a firm hold in the management ranks. These dragons must be slain where and while they sleep!
2. Actively striving to diversify the experience base of the talent in the firm is critical to ensuring the view to the outside remains open and clear. One of GMs core tenets as it masterminded losing the world was that the management must always come from within. Nothing breeds contempt for change like perpetuating like-minded and like-kind managers.
3. The words or even the actions that suggest, “we’ve always done it this way” must be banished and replaced with ample quantities of new…new processes, new approaches, new experiments. “Because we’ve always done it this way” are evil words and destructive thoughts perpetuated by people fearful of what change might mean for them.
4. The speed of learning is a new performance metric, as is the speed to translating learning into new behaviors. Creating systems and opportunities across the culture that allow for easy, fast parsing of new insights and translation of these insights into actions is essential.
5. The hard work of exercising team decision-making muscle must be deliberately undertaken. Very few management or project teams ever decide how to decide, or, worse yet, they fail to take on the task of strengthening decision-making over time. Decision-making muscles must not be allowed to atrophy.
6. The attitude around failure must shift from one of shame and stigma to one of curiosity and opportunity. There is no learning without experimentation and most experiments fail…along the way to designing more informed experiments that ultimately succeed.
7. Teams must resist the Siren Song of the Rising Tide, where they mistakenly assume that good times accrue to them naturally as a right and due to their brilliance and enact the corporate equivalent of Odysseus who ordered his men to stuff their ears with wax and to lash him to the mast as a means of resisting the siren call.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
As humans, we love stories about great quests, and we love when our heroes survive and ultimately succeed. Our professional lives in our organizations…our corporations and churches and not-for-profits all enable us to participate in our own great quest in support of mission or market and like the stories we love so much, there are always foes to vanquish, trials to complete and new adventures just over the horizon. For the firms and teams who have enjoyed success, the most significant foes and demons are most often lurking inside their own walls.
Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here
New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.
An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.