Friday, September 27, 2013

What's Worse than a Strategy Consultant? A team with no strategy.

I have to admit that I've done some really embarrassing things in my career.  And believe me, it's a long strange trip from a fresh minted UC Irvine Information and Computer Science grad to where I am now.

Along the way, I've had some really cool job titles.  Like "Technical Director" or "Director, IT Architecture."  You get the idea.  However, one job title that struck me as wrong an still sounds absurd to me is "Principal Strategy Consultant."  I mean, if anyone tells you that they are a strategy consultant you have to question what they actually do.  And to be a "Principal?"  Does that mean you're the king of the do nothings?

What it actually meant is that I got paid to go into businesses, ask dumb questions and then tell them what they were doing wrong.  Man, I loved that job.

As you can imagine, this gives me a funny way of looking at the world.  Or to be more accurate, I'm pretty f'd up and that job just brought out the worst in me.  My first boss told me that I had a "Columbus Complex."  He explained that meant I would take a look at a map, figure out that the shortest path from A to B was a straight line and to hell what any of the "experts" said.  Those of you who know me: you can stop laughing now.  After all, old Chris was right.  Let's forget that he thought the Caribbean was "East India".  I mean, it IS EAST OF INDIA, right?  So, two points for trying.

Getting to the point here, I'm a long term guy.  When I talk to people about their products or their services, I'm always looking at a multi year horizon.  That's not really "long term" for other industries like the guys who manage forests or something but it's pretty long term in the technology business.  Looking five years out in our business is really tough.  It's so difficult in fact that many product teams that I've worked on don't really try.

And that's a shame.

I call it "Lack of Strategic Context."  Which is a fancy way of saying you have no clue where you're going.  A director I was talking to the other day put it this way: "Why are we debating if you should take the train, fly or drive?  You don't even know which city you're going to."

You see the problem?  If you have no destination in mind then you're just wandering in the desert.  That's no way to lead your tribe, my friends.  Having an ultimate destination in mind is vital.  Even if you're wrong, it's better to have one in mind that to have nothing.

Don't believe me?  OK.  Let's talk about what happens when you don't have a strategic context:

  1. Team dissonance.  Ever been on a team that is not aligned?  Ever been in a meeting where everyone is arguing and nobody can even agree what they're arguing about?  On what basis are we trying to make a decision?  It's very frustrating.  Team members will not perform at their peak with high levels of team dissonance.
  2. No clear decision criteria.  Without clear strategic goals, how do you make decisions?  What criteria do you use?  Not every decision has a strategic impact, but they all should be made in a strategic context so you can decide HOW to make the decision.  What factors will you use to weigh your options?  These are all strategic context issues.
  3. Duplicative or contradictory work.  If your destination is unclear, how do you minimize the amount of repetitive or unnecessary work that gets done?  Being able to decide what NOT TO DO is usually way more important (and more difficult) than deciding what TO DO.
  4. Multiple, conflicting agendas.  Whether overt or covert, people will develop their own plan.  Nobody likes wandering around in circles.  Without a clearly defined joint strategic context, the team members will start establishing their own vision.  The better the team, the worse this problem gets.  Smart people will figure it out but they won't always come to the same conclusion. 
So, how do we establish a strategic context?

There is no one single way to get this done.  In the end, all that matters is that you have a shared long term vision amongst the team members.  You can spend a week in a conference room or go build teepees in the desert together (and yes, I actually did that once; not recommended).  However you get there, you need to have a single unified vision of your long term future together.

This really only works if you are the team leader or you have great support from your leadership.  You cannot "manage up" on strategy.  Here are some tricks that I've used with various teams I've worked with in the past.

  1. This is your strategy.  It has to work for you and your style.  You can hire a consultant to help with the process, but you cannot get strategy from other people.  Just doesn't work.  Most of the folks who hired me to be a strategy consultant ultimately failed because they really didn't believe in or accept what I was telling them.  In the end, I realized that my job was more like a AA leader.  They have to want to change.
  2. Strategy is a living thing.  Don't waste time on long winded reports or white papers.  I really prefer PPTs, but that's just me.  Do what works for you.  However, you really need to think of your strategy as the group's shared vision, not the paper or document.  That's just an artifact.  A point in time that you use to explain it to others.  The point of strategic context is to get the team aligned, not to produce fancy documents or presentations.
  3. This is an in person, touchy feely thing.  You cannot get a highly distributed team aligned to a group strategy or vision.  I have NEVER seen this work.  NEVER.  Get the team together, work as a group for as long as it takes.  Meet regularly to ensure that you're still on target.  Go get drunk together.  I have made more progress on this issue over beers after some trade show than I have ever done during a WebEx with guys from all over the world.
  4. This is about passion, not reason.  Highly talented people are passionate about what they do.  This means that they form emotional attachments to their work products.  You need to recognize that.  Allow them to vent that emotion when their pet project gets de-funded.  Dissent within the team is awesome while you are discussing what you should do.  Once the call is made, then it's time to get with the program or get lost.  Your team needs to understand that it's OK to bitch or complain within these sessions but that it's not OK to be off message externally.
  5. Interview your team.  Take time to sit down with each member of your team individually.  Ask them to explain the team's long term goals.  If they can't do it, you've failed to achieve strategic context for them.  Keep in mind that this is your failure, not their failure.  Explain the goals and reset.  Repeat this process at least quarterly.  Ask yourself if the goals are correct.  If your own team doesn't get it, will anyone else?
I wish you good luck in your journey.


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