Art of Managing—Beware Lazy Approaches to the Hard Work of Strategy

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms“Not miscalculation, bad strategy is the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.” Richard Rumelt—Good Strategy/Bad Strategy


“Our strategy is to be more profitable than our competitors.”

“Our strategy is to grow from 10,000 to 100,000 customers in the next three years.”

“Our strategy is to be the leading provider of (insert your category) to the (insert your market) by (insert your year).

“Our strategy is to grow.”

“The absence of a strategy for us is actually a strategy.”

Sadly, I’m not making these quotes up. I was present for each of these utterances from otherwise intelligent senior executives. The statements underscore the widespread misunderstanding of what strategy is coupled with little idea how to actually generate one that’s coherent and legitimate.

Fluff statements don’t define a coherent strategy.

The absence of a strategy is…well, a strategy to flail and fail.

Growth is not a strategy.

And big, lofty goals don’t define or describe a strategy. In the meeting where the customer count went from 10,000 to 100,000, it was like a bidding war to see which executive could propose the most outlandish number.

“20,000, you’re thinking too small,” crowed one executive. “It should be 50,000.”

“50,000, we’ve got to go big or go home. It’s 100,000,” suggested the Managing Director. “Are we agreed that this is our strategy,” he asked, rhetorically as the bidding war came to an end.

One senior manager courageously suggested that the customer count didn’t define a strategy. He was verbally beaten down, run over and ground up by the number-charged crowd.

Rumelt’s Kernel of a Strategy:

Rumelt’s treatment on good strategy is both simple and elegant. He suggests focusing on developing the kernel of a strategy.

The Diagnosis answers very clearly, “What’s going on here?” Getting to a clear answer to this question involves considerable work in sorting through the emotions and opinions and to focus on both internal and external realities. You’re after clear statements of the truth.

The Guiding Philosophy frames: “What are we going to do about it?” It clarifies the opportunity, amplifies the firm’s key leverage points and sets bounds the field of play. It’s this absence of a guiding philosophy that is most common and most fatal to a firm’s strategic thinking and actions. Without a clear, sound guiding philosophy, every option is on the table. The goal of strategy is to take all but the essential options for success off the table.

The Coherent Actions are those steps or initiatives (and progress measures) the firm agrees to take to bring the guiding philosophy to life. Another leading strategy thinker, George Day, describes this as: “identifying a series of integrated actions to pursue competitive advantage.” The operative word is “integrated.”

What’s not apparent (although it is implied) in his “kernel” approach is the incredible hard work—the heavy lifting of debating and deciding and selecting. It’s some of the hardest brain work you’ll ever do, and the complexity is compounded by the essential need for a group of high-powered people to move beyond ego and bias to a place that is more honest and objective. That last point, the group dynamic, is in my experience, the most difficult part of the process for a book’s worth of reasons.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In most of our firms and even in our public matters of state, we’re letting our leaders and our executive teams off the hook on the hard work of cultivating and articulating coherent strategies. Don’t settle for the platitudes and lofty goals and fluff-statements—they’re not strategies, they’re the result of a lazy approach to a critical topic. Whether you’re sitting at the top of the food chain or operating from somewhere in the middle, it’s essential to ask and push for clear, coherent answers to the hard questions.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


Leadership Caffeine™—Seeing and Observing

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeve

The Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A dialog between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The famous author Saul Bellow coined the phrase, “first class noticer” and the late Warren Bennis as well as Harvard’s Max Bazerman both implore(d) us to strengthen our powers of noticing.

”I’ve never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it’s a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! –Saul Bellow

In my discussions with senior leaders, I ask a few simple but not simplistic questions:

  • What’s new that will change everything for your firm?
  • Who are the people on your team that see the future?
  • What are you doing to change the game for the better for your customers?

As you might imagine, the answers to all three of the questions are often…light.

Too many of us view our world through glasses that both narrow the vision and shrink the focal point to a point just a short distance (and time) from the here and now.

We spend an incredible amount of time immersed in a world of our own fabrication—the world as it feels and looks and acts from inside our organization’s walls. It’s not the culture that will kill you, it’s the view. It’s time to change it.

Take off the blinders and look up and out further. Extend your focal point.

Changing the View and Becoming First Class Noticers:

A marketing executive I hold in high regard did this with her team.

She had grown tired of the endless debates about what to do and where to go that were anchored firmly by the view and biases of the people in her firm.

She sent her team out into the field to attend industry events and talk with customers. They parroted what they heard: “faster horses” (more of the same…incremental changes) from the customers, and the same tired industry gossip and scuttlebutt about new features, functions and releases from competitors. She had long been convinced that the only thing that changed at the annual industry trade-shows were the company names on the badges of the same people.

She did something her team viewed initially as odd. She cut the budgets for travel to industry events and she signed people up and sent them out to events and conferences and summits in markets and for technologies far removed from her firm’s industry.

The team was confused.

She sent them out with bewildered looks on their faces, armed with two requirements:

  1. Listen and observe. Pay attention to this environment. What’s happening? What’s new? What’s driving and changing everything? How are the change leaders impacting the incumbents?
  2. Be prepared to come home and share your ideas (no matter how wild) on how what you observed might apply to our industry and customers?

While people were tentative at first, they quickly embraced the idea of listening and learning and observing in these very foreign environments. They met with industry leaders. They lingered at the booths of unfamiliar companies and asked questions. They asked a lot of questions. And then they returned home to share.

Some of their ideas connecting developments two or three degrees away from their industry sounded like science fiction. She was pleased.

They logged the ideas and made them visible in open space area. She encouraged people to return to them and refine and jump and build on the ideas…on their own or in small groups. She encouraged people who developed a belief in a vector to research and experiment. They did.

Over the two years following the start of this program, the company added two of the ideas from this adventure to their long range investment horizon. Two other ideas translated to near-term revenues based on new partnerships uncovered in these pursuits. Her team is now talking with their customers about opportunities to grow and adapt and partner in new ways with new technologies and ideas.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team in this example extended and broadened their view of the world to their firm’s benefit. They became “first-class noticers” who translated what they observed into ideas and in some cases actions. If your firm is preoccupied in the world that exists inside the walls of your firm, it’s time to push out and open your collective eyes and look around and notice. There’s a lot going on out there. As Bellow says, “Enchanting Reality!”

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



High Performance Management—All Strategy Work is Personal

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementMost businesses and most management teams flail and fail when it comes to the work of strategy.

In today’s world, where the long-cycle strategy process has been replaced by short-bursts of experimentation and iteration, it’s essential to reduce the fail and flail by attacking the root causes of so much dysfunction with this work. And, it’s not the complexity of the new initiatives that derail these teams. Rather, it’s a lack of discipline and a deficit of resolve on the part of the primary actors to do what is necessary to improve the odds of succeeding.

Watch Out for These Pitfalls:

The debate around direction (strategy) is almost always a tug-of-war, with those firmly married to this bygone era, resisting those who see the need to throw away that familiar security blanket in pursuit of new. These situations often end up as an Us-Versus-Them contest, with one side waving the flag of culture and tradition and the other side shouting that it doesn’t matter. The history isn’t the issue. It’s part of the firm’s legacy and culture and it should be celebrated but not endlessly emulated or repeated. Once the fracture in the culture opens up, this is difficult to repair and it creates a drag on progress in finding much needed new growth opportunities.

Another common dilemma is the debate over disconnected vectors. One group is passionate about the opportunities in markets A & B and requires investment to realize the benefits of those markets. Another group looks at Y & Z as the logical next steps and requires their own new investment to move forward. Instead of making the hard but critical call, senior executives often broker a compromise and fund both, setting the stage for a Darwinian battle for survival. This “cut the baby in half,” where the baby is precious resources and capital, practically guarantees failure for both initiatives.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsYet another tripping point for senior management teams comes from the passive-aggressive lone-holdout. In my experience, the name and role changes, but the behaviors remain the same. Whether it’s the head of sales or marketing or research and development, this individual views himself/herself as the protector of the sacred status quo. He/she plays along in the strategy games, often extending debates and withholding commitment. They become particularly dangerous when they quietly but maliciously work to torpedo the initiative by withholding resources and derailing key supporting projects. These individuals are often master politicians, deftly navigating and neutralizing much deserved criticism.

All of the above is compounded when the individual sitting at the head of the table is uncertain over the right direction and unwilling to commit until the fog clears and the path becomes obvious. This hesitation is perceptible to everyone and easily exploited by those anchored to the status-quo.

This would be easy if it weren’t for the people.

7 Steps to Help the Senior Team Get it Right:

1. Get Outside Help. Yes, I’m biased, but the bias comes from decades of beating my head against the wall as a member of senior management teams trying to cut through all of the above. The right guide will shave person-years off of the duration of these initiatives and dramatically improve your odds of success. When choosing a guide, select someone with some gray or less hair from this process and beware of consultants bearing templates. There is no one template to get strategy right.

2. Conduct a Pre-Post Mortem on the Initiative. Ask, “when this succeeds, what will we have done right?” Model the success. Then ask, “If it fails, what will we have done wrong?” Leverage the output from these questions in forming and adopting a set of values that describes the essential and accepted behaviors.

3. Make Success or Failure Personal. In a variation of number two, ask everyone to codify in writing and then to verbalize, “At the end of this initiative, what will my teammates say that I did?” Everyone, involved, and especially the CEO, must participate. One team posted their planned contributions and behaviors in the designated “war room” and referenced them regularly.

4. Address the Elephants in the Room Early and Often. Remind everyone: Yes, this may mean a departure from the status quo. Yes, we will eventually have to structure to succeed. Yes, pet project are potentially vulnerable. Yes, we will make the hard decisions on what’s right for our firm, employees and stakeholders. Yes, we will ask outside opinions. Yes, you will be voted off the island if you violate the established values.

5. Respect the Legacy, but Don’t Anchor to It. Acknowledge that past approaches and legacy markets were the sources of growth that brought you here. Unless a clear case can be made for growth by extension in those arenas, it’s time to make some new opportunities and earn some new victories.

6. Decide How You Will Decide. Take time upfront to define the decision-making process. Too much work around strategy is prolonged by the lack of clear processes and approaches for this difficult but critical step.

7. It’s All About Execution—Build Discipline in Up-Front. Even when management teams get the advance work done in good form, there’s still the real work of bringing the ideas to life. Take the time to architect an execution program that allows for experimentation and learning and refinement. By the same token, build in the measures and reporting needed to quickly identify lack of commitment, poor coordination and the gravitational pull of resorting to old approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans by nature are consistent and predictable, particularly when it comes to the messy issues around change. While few would argue that change is the order of the day in our world, we’ve not yet adapted our hardware and software—our minds and hearts—to facilitate critical change and adaptation in our businesses. Today, strategy work is an iterative, short-cycle process that demands participation, discipline and resolve. The senior team and senior leaders must build and build-in practices that mitigate the human pitfalls around change and motivate experimentation and learning. And while we talk about strategy as an organizational issue, it’s really an intensely personal issue.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


How Small-Company CEOs Can Build Management Teams that Work

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementOne of the worst uses of the term, “team,” is in relationship to the group of executives who report to the CEO. For many of the firms I work with ($20 million to $200 million in annual revenues), there’s little beyond the “report to” issue that binds these groups together as a team. This is often frustrating to CEOs who expect more from their highest paid lieutenants.

Countless hours and dollars are spent at offsite retreats and with expensive consultants and industrial psychologists exploring interesting dimensions of individual and group dynamics, often with no sustaining and positive “teaming” effects once the group returns to their day jobs.

What’s a CEO to do?

The answer for many is to simplify this situation by resetting expectations for teaming and laser focusing on the few issues that demand close coordination across this group of experienced and highly compensated individuals. While resetting expectations may sound like capitulation, it’s more of a case of choosing what not to do and focusing energies on the few combined activities that will move the performance meters in the right direction.

Resetting Expectations—Letting Go of Visions of Camelot

For many CEOs, there’s an idealized state of existence where the senior managers without prompting function as a single entity solving problems and making decisions and spreading confidence and good cheer across the firm. In this vision, the managers trust and even like each other and importantly, they protect each other. It’s a nice vision. Nice, but impractical.

In reality, senior managers are often at cross-purposes with each other over budgetary issues and the battle for resources for their teams. By nature of their functions, their time horizons are different. Poorly designed compensation systems fail to motivate integration and coordination, and key performance indicators reflect functional variables that are irrelevant beyond the specific department—interesting and perhaps important, but not meaningful to the group.

And the unspoken reality is that some senior managers view a seat at the table as a license to hunt for more power—whether it’s via an elevated title or favored status when it comes to gaining access to the CEO’s ear. The senior management environment is a ripe breeding ground for competition for individuals used to competing and succeeding in games of power and resources.

While many of the above variables are capable of being tuned and tweaked, a faster path to meaningful collaboration is to focus on the core issues that must bind this group in attitude and performance: direction, coordination and values. While I absolutely advocate creating meaningful, integrated measures, goals and compensation schemes, and eradicating destructive power-grabs, those should emerge from a focus on the issues.

Where Teamwork Matters at the Top:

1. Direction.The senior managers must coalesce around the next steps for the firm. Easy words, but a difficult objective to achieve in reality (and the subject of a dedicated forthcoming post).

Helping Teams and Individuals Find DirectionWhether it’s diversifying and strengthening offerings or making moves to extend within a current segment/customer group or, expanding to cover new segments, a unified front from this group is essential. In teams where this unified view and messaging is missing, the broader organization picks up on the dissonance and morale and execution suffer.

CEOs must facilitate the hard dialog about direction and bring the debates to a close with a clear, unassailable conclusion. Once direction is set, the team is accountable to owning this direction choice together—from messaging to execution, learning and adaptation. This doesn’t preclude amending or shifting in the future, but there’s a point in time when the debates stop, a choice is made and the needed senior manager collaboration begins.

2. Coordination around Strategy Execution. Management groups are capable of developing as teams around the critical and challenging work of bringing directional decisions to life. These are effectively programs or projects with a tremendous number of inter-dependencies between functions. From co-sponsoring cross-functional initiatives or key project pieces to defining meaningful measures that gauge organizational progress on strategies, teamwork at the top is critical. In my experience, the clear and galvanizing purpose of strategy implementation and the transparency required for gauging progress are critical variables for promoting senior manager teamwork.

3. Values. For high performing organizations, the values that define expected and accepted behaviors are visible and very much alive, and their reinforcement starts and stops with senior management behaviors. People mimic powerful leaders, and they are super-sensitive to behaviors that are dissonant from what’s been described as appropriate or ideal. There can be no exceptions at the senior manager level to living and supporting the values of the firm and the behaviors needed to ensure clarity of purpose, rules of engagement and collaboration and accountability for outcomes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In three decades of attending, being a part of or facilitating senior management teams and meetings, I have no qualms suggesting that most of these groups sub-optimize. I’ve observed or have been a part of a couple of groups for points in time that looked and felt like real teams in all respects, but those are the exceptions. CEOs have a tough job deriving value beyond functional leadership from their senior managers, and instead of expecting them to spontaneously emerge as a great team, they are better served focusing on driving teamwork in the limited but important areas of direction, strategy execution and values reinforcement. Get these three right and the opportunity for the group to emerge as a real team improves considerably.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe 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.

Strategy processes mostly disappoint. That’s too bad, because there are few activities more essential to an organization’s success and security than getting strategy right.

The output of too many strategy processes ends up as simply the corporate messaging of a firm’s senior managers, with little impact on operations, investments or structure. And sadly, the reasons that strategy efforts fail to deliver value are easy to observe and relatively speaking, fairly easy to avoid with good leadership and effective managerial discipline.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on some common reasons strategy programs break bad. In part 2, we’ll explore the important, “What to do about it” ideas.

At Least 17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail:

1-No shared view of what strategy really is. Few executives (few people) immediately agree on a common definition of strategy. To some, strategy is a refined version of the operating plan. To others, it’s a moonshot. And for still others, it’s the creation of something that never existed. Most processes fail from the word “strategy” simply because there’s no agreement on what the heck it is and what it is supposed to look like.

2-Confusion over who owns strategy. Is it marketing? Is it the CEO? Is it the executive team? No one knows and everyone ends up waiting and pointing.

3-Everyone is at cross-purposes over the vocabulary and key concepts. Much like the many meanings people ascribe to the term “strategy,” the other terms confuse and confound as well. The concepts of mission, vision, value proposition, competitive advantage and the many other terms that swirl around the discipline of strategy mean different things to different people.

4. Management teams fail to function like teams. Most management teams resemble this remark. They’re groups filled with smart people…functional experts with little context for why they need to operate as a team. In fact, most don’t. The work of strategy is a team sport.

5-Strategy is treated like an event, not a continuous process. Too many firms relegate the critical dialog about future directions and opportunities to one or two offsite events every year. It’s a constant dialog, not a one or two-shot activity.

6-Power, politics and the status quo all get in the way. Most executives and senior managers intuitively know that a new strategy begets change…and change threatens structure and resources. There’s a natural gravitational pull of the status quo to preserve power and control over budgets and resources that precludes open, objective consideration of new paths.

7-Expecting template tools to spit out remarkable solutions. There are all manner of methodologies and processes and templates and frameworks, each professing to offer the path to enlightenment. They’re tools…not magic answer generating machines and they often need to be adapted and mixed and matched. Consultants and facilitators  exacerbate this situation by drawing upon the template style they know and not picking and choosing or creating the right tools for the unique situation.

8-Trying to play a long-game on strategic planning in a world that requires sprints, learning and adaptation.

9-Looking to strategy to generate the budget. It’s dangerous to blend the two activities and too many teams fall into this trap.

10-Creeping incrementalism. The work of strategy becomes a simple extension of the current operating plan. Anything outside the status quo is rejected.

11-Maddening myopia. The input and views on the broader world are limited to what the team can see from their conference room window.

12-No one’s involved. The work is held hostage by a few “enlightened” souls.

13-Everyone’s involved. Everyone has an opinion but no one knows how to parse the opinions. The team appears to have no boundaries. It’s everywhere and every one and nowhere and no one all at the same time.

14-The Cowardly Lion rules the day. There’s a courage deficit that reduces well-developed and new ideas to under-funded sidebar initiatives that are often slowly starved to keep supporting the bloated list of initiatives vying for resources with the current state business.

15-Confusing past success and good luck with strategy. The mistaken belief that good results thus far mean we must have a strategy that works often results in a stubborn denial of the need to change in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.

16-A failure to launch. Often, good ideas fall by the wayside due to poor or non-existent execution programs. It’s just assumed that the new strategy work will be adopted in the daily routines of people across functions.

17-Ocean boiling and process fatigue. When the process reads like a late career Michener novel that focuses on Colorado but starts at the formation of the earth and proceeds very, very slowly from there, people give up. (OK, I loved Michener, but his later works required ample patience.) These processes easily become all-consuming and the business of running the business becomes secondary.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the work of assessing opportunities, choosing directions and choosing what not to do is rarely ever easy, too many firms and management teams are shooting themselves in both feet with the above mistakes. The challenge is how to avoid these traps and pitfalls and find a way forward into the murky fog of the future and to come out of the process with something worth doing. I’ll turn this discussion positive in my next post on the topic.