Apr 082014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

I’m very results driven. I suppose it derives from the 18 years that I lived in Manhattan. After living there for a while you come to understand that talking about it is akin to moving the flatware around on the dining room table and calling it change. My intense focus on generating meaningful results that can be measured by specific performance metrics that allows me to generate progress that often comes as a surprise to clients.

Got This Feeling?

Got This Feeling?

This is not experience that is new to me. A couple of years back I wrote an article – Consultants and Prudence – which focused on the dangers of hiring certain types of consultants. Recent experiences with new clients have brought back the memories that drove that article and have caused me to reflect on what has been driving the initial phases of an engagements with a new client. And that has led me to an understanding that goes somewhat beyond that which I expressed in the original article. Perhaps a short description will help you understand what I’m getting it.

Strategic Plan to Nowhere

New engagements often focus initially on the planning that a client has done. In one recent case, the syndrome that the title of this section describes was present in high relief. The strategic plan that the client had paid significant amounts of money to have developed inhabited a binder in the CEOs bookcase. I ran a SWOT analysis and found that the strategic plan was not being implemented. In fact, most of the members of the senior team saw it as the results of a purely academic exercise; something again to the time you might spend with a hobby that serves as the version. The strategic plan was leading nowhere.

I have a different approach to strategic planning. Most of my engagements begin with the development of such a plan. The difference comes with the nature of that plan and its role in the development of the clients interests. I don’t believe in a generic version of a strategic plan. In order to be effective, each plan must be developed for a specific set of purposes. In this case, those purposes center around the intention of the management team to significantly grow the company. As a result, plans begin to be implemented before they are even complete.

The challenge that this new client presented was to introduce them to this new vision of strategic planning while disabusing them of the notion that generic strategic planning had any usefulness at all. And why was this challenge so difficult to meet? That is the key question in this story.

As I looked deeper into it, I found that the senior management team had an aversion to performance metrics that were applied to themselves. They didn’t mind applying such metrics to employees but avoided situations that would result in them being held accountable. Generic strategic planning was safe because it did not focus on the generation of performance metrics.

The Safe Option

So how did this version manifests itself when the company hired a consultant to help them with their strategic planning? Well, you can probably anticipate the answer. They hired one who specialized in generic strategic planning. But there were several other characteristics of this consultant that were important. The most notable one was that this person came out of an essentially academic environment. In other words, they had never built a company. They had never implemented the strategic plan. They had certainly never developed and deployed a series of performance metrics, particularly ones that apply to themselves.

kool_aidThe resulting consulting agreement was a masterful codification of this mutually agreed-upon aversion. The resulting strategic plan demonstrated this fact. It was a purely academic document which immediately assumed the aspect of irrelevance as soon as it was completed. The consultant, of course, got paid and was happy for it. I am sure that he used the resulting plan to further promote his services. The senior management team felt self-righteous and having commissioned and completed a strategic plan. During our initial interviews, they touted it as an indication of how dedicated they were to growing the company.

The wheels began to fall off this mutually agreed-upon delusion as I press the issue of return on investment. Initial responses to this pressure was as generic as the strategic plan. But, as I pressed the issues, the management team was forced to admit that they had essentially wasted the company’s money. It was then that I began to introduce the idea; a different understanding of the role and usefulness of strategic planning – planning for a specific purpose.

Accepting The Metrics

I don’t want to give the impression that what happened next was an easy process. In fact, it was something akin to hand-to-hand combat. I started with the CEO and worked my way through the entire senior management team. For most of the early phase of the engagement, the work seemed closer to mentoring than strategic advisory. But, with consistent effort I was able to help the team members understand the real costs of their aversions. They came to see that personal performance metrics were an essential component of any plan and that a strategic plan that did not involve them was a waste of time and money.

This is turning out to be a very successful engagement. The senior team has turned the corner. They always understood that business is not an academic undertaking. Now they understood that strategic planning needs to be approached in the same manner. The progress was described well when the CEO said to me “Why did we pay for that thing when we clearly had no intention of using it?” Then he paused and grinned. “Yeah, I know. Because it was safe.”

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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