Did you know that if you hold a small coin close enough to your eye you can block out the sun? More on that later.

What do the executive teams of a very successful investment bank and a global non-profit organization have in common? They both struggle with how to articulate their next level of strategy with simplistic and straightforward language, or rather in plain speak. Maybe they share other things in common as well but a very real challenge exists within executive teams who have established their businesses and are looking for ways to continuously innovate, change and stay relevant.

It’s interesting how executives in startup organizations seem to be clear on what needs to happen and maintain a sense of urgency in getting things done yet as time passes and some level of stability settles in, these same executives often find it difficult to plan for what’s next or even enhance what they are doing now. These are very general statements, I know, and don’t apply to the masses but they do apply to enough teams across several types of companies; so much so that entire businesses around executive coaching and strategy have been around for years. In fact, a colleague has often said that the best thing in the world to sell is common sense; it’s what we all need more of especially in business.

Back to the investment bank and non-profit. The reason I use those two examples is because they are two very real examples for me personally. In our varied careers most of us get the opportunity, if we desire it, to get involved with activities outside our “day job” and use our talents and skills elsewhere. In my case, I spend time each year outside my primary scope of work helping executive teams and boards translate their strategies, challenges and initiatives into plain speak; meaning that the beginning to being better starts with becoming simpler in articulating what we want or need to do.

This is where I would tout the strengths of practices and techniques from the world of agile and lean. Combined with good old-fashioned board level and executive experience, these techniques can prove very useful in accelerating a path to better results and dealing with critical business issues.

In the case of both the investment bank and non-profit, I had the opportunity in helping them define their strategies for the coming year. This involved getting them to work together through a number of exercises and activities so we could draw out the specifics. In the case of the investment bank the desire to reshape their marketing strategy was raised as one primary initiative. This ultimately ended up in their list of stories and was prioritized accordingly but long before that happened and interesting discussion took place.

In a two-hour span neither the CEO nor his direct reports could answer the simple question of why this initiative needed to happen. Opinions and “professional arguments” broke out amongst them. What did we conclude? The main reason for reshaping the marketing strategy, which by the way involved redoing all website content and rewriting the product content, was because the CEO felt his competitor’s website looked better than theirs.

I’m not saying that this reason isn’t important for changing your marketing strategy but is it worth the $500,000 that was being discussed as a budget for this initiative?

During our offsite we spent the day having similar discussions about other initiatives that were originally stated as important. In the end, using some very effective and simple techniques, we defined 3 core initiatives for the coming year, prioritized them and the tasks to make them happen, assigned realistic budgets, appointed owners and built a plan that left all of satisfied and with clarity on what needed to be done.

In the case of the non-profit the emphasis was not so much on marketing but rather on the best use of funds, the organizational design and the need to bring more awareness to the cause. Similar results took place that day and in the end we got a desired result.

That said; there were some interesting findings that day. I’ve compiled some research over a period of time and I’ve discussed this research and socialized it with other executive teams and colleagues. If you find that some of the points below are controversial or cause a stir within you it could be because you need to check if they are true about you or in your organization.

A mentor once told me that we’re often bothered most with the things we see and hear in business because we might struggle with those same things. In other words, if they get our attention then there is a reason for that and it should not be ignored.

The findings and comments below represent only a part of this research and I’ve attempted to include some insight on how to address some of the items mentioned

If your topic (strategy, initiative, etc.) can’t be worded to fit on an index card then it is not understood and poorly defined.

  • Once you can clearly state it concisely on an index card try using a user story approach to define it with more specifics
  • A common user story on an index card can consist of defining 4 sections:
    • AS A (or AS THE): state the title or role of the owner
      • AS THE CEO
    • I WANT (be specific about what needs to be done)
      • I WANT to increase profitability by 10% this year
    • SO THAT (be specific about the benefit)
      • SO THAT we can fund our expansion in the UK
    • ACCEPTANCE CRITERIA (what needs to happen so we know we’ve achieved this)
      • By Q3 we’ve confirmed a 10% increase in profits
      • Our UK expansion plan is complete
      • We have board approval and sign off
  • The challenge isn’t knowing what to do as much as it is doing what we know
    • You expect that the experience executive teams should have means that they know what needs to be done BUT actually getting it done is an entirely different issue. There are several reasons for this:
      • Roles and responsibilities that are not clearly defined contribute to hesitation and latency in executing
      • Lack of experience – big titles often mask depth
      • Right people in wrong jobs
    • Go beyond performance reviews and job descriptions by removing the fear of change and address the skills and competency issue by introducing complete transparency on who knows what and who can get things done – in other words, forget titles and assign responsibility to those that can execute
    • Look deeper into the organization – it’s often the ones doing the heavy lifting and not the ones with the titles that deserve the attention
  • Do you really know why you’re doing this?
    • The most common mistake executive teams make in defining strategies is to poorly define why they’re doing or not doing something
    • While this sounds to basic to be true, it’s more prevalent than you might think – the CEO of the investment bank loudly responded to my third attempt at asking him why he needed to change the marketing strategy by saying “because I said so, that’s why”… not exactly a reply that we can hang our business on.
  • Use simple statements and do away with popular terms and buzzwords
    • Instead of saying what everyone else says, try discussing the terms you use as a team and see what everyone believes they mean; you’ll be surprised at the difference of opinion
    • The goal should be that everyone knows what a particular term or word means to the company when it’s spoken

There were other results worth mentioned but for another article. Remember what I said about holding a small coin close enough to your eye? In principle this is what stumbles executive teams and prevents them from plain speak, common sense and a clear path; they hold their ideals and what they believe to be well defined plans so close that they block out any ray of hope in seeing things in a different light.

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