Mar 292012

Book Short: Awesome Title, So-So Book

Book Short:  Awesome Title, So-So Book

Strategy and the Fat Smoker (book, Kindle), by David Maister, was a book that had me completely riveted in the first few chapters, then completely lost me for the rest.  That was a shame.  It might be worth reading it just for the beginning, though I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the purchase just for that.

The concept (as well as the title) is fantastic.  As the author says in the first words of the introduction:

We often (or even usually) know what we should be doing in both personal and professional life.  We also know why we should be doing it and (often) how to do it.  Figuring all that out is not too difficult.  What is very hard is actually doing what you know to be good for you in the long-run, in spite of short-run temptations.  The same is true for organizations.

The diagnosis is clear, which is as true for organizations as it is for fat people, smokers, fat smokers, etc.  The hard work (pain) is near-term, and the rewards (gain) are off in the future, without an obvious or visible correlation.  As someone who has had major up and down swings in weight for decades, I totally relate to this.

But the concept that

the necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve,

while accurate, is the equivalent of an entire book dedicated to the principle of “oh just shut up and do it already.”  The closest the author comes to answering the critical question of how to get “it” done is when he says

A large part of really bringing about strategic change is designing some new action or new system that visibly, inescapably, and irreversibly commits top management to the strategy.

Right.  That’s the same thing as saying that in order to lose weight, not only do you need to go on a diet and weigh yourself once in a while, but you need to make some major public declaration and have other people help hold you accountable, if by no other means than causing you to be embarrassed if you fail in your quest.

So all that is true, but unfortunately, the last 80% of the book, while peppered with moderately useful insights on management and leadership, felt largely divorced from the topic.  It all just left me wanting inspirational stories of organizations doing the equivalent of losing weight and quitting smoking before their heart attacks, frameworks of how to get there, and the like.  But those were almost nonexistent.  Maybe Strategy and the Fat Smoker works really well for consulting firms – that’s where a lot of the examples came from.  I find frequently that books written by consultants are fitting for that industry but harder to extrapolate from there to any business.

Feb 092012

The Best Laid Plans, Part IV

The Best Laid Plans, IV

I have had a bunch of good comments from readers about the three posts in this series about creating strategic plans (input phase, analysis phase, output phase).  Many of them are leading me to write a fourth post in the series, one about how to make sure the result of the plan isn’t shelfware, but flawless execution.

There’s a bit of middleware that has to happen between the completion of the strategic plan and the work getting done, and that is an operating plan.  In my observation over the years, this is where most companies explode.  They have good ideas and capable workers, just no cohesive way to organize and contextualize the work.  There are lots of different formats operating plans can take, and a variety of acronyms to go with the formats, that I’ve heard over the years.  No one of these formats is “right,” but I’ll share the key process steps my own team and I went through just over the past few months to turn our strategic planning into action plans, synchronizing our activities across products and groups.

  • Theme:  we picked a theme for the year that generally held the bulk of the key work together – a bit of a rallying cry
  • Initiatives:  recognizing that lots of people do lots of routine work, we organized a series of a dozen “move the ball forward” projects into specific initiatives
  • Communication:  we unveiled the theme and the initiatives to ALL at our annual business meeting to get everyone’s head around the work to be done in the upcoming year
  • Plans:  each of the dozen initiative teams, and then also each team/department in the company (they’re different) worked together to produce a short (1-3 page) plan on a template we created, with a mission statement, a list of direct and indirect participants, important milestones and metrics
  • Synchronization:  the senior management team reviewed all the plans at the same time and had a meaningful discussion to synchronize the plans, making edits to both substance and timing
  • Scorecard:  we built our company scorecard for the year to reflect “green/yellow/red” grading on each initiative and visually display the most important 5-6 metrics across all initiatives
  • Ongoing reporting:  we will publish the scorecard and updated to each initiative plan quarterly to the whole company, when we update them for Board meetings

As I said, there’s no single recipe for success here, but this is a variant on what we’ve done consistently over the years at Return Path, and it seems to be working well for us.  I think that’s the end of this series, and judging from the comments I’ve received on the blog and via email, I’m glad this was useful to so many people.

Feb 022012

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase and the Analysis Phase of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the final Output Phase, which goes something like this:

Vision articulation.  Get it right for yourself first.  You should be able to answer “where do we want to be in three years?” in 25 words or less.

Roadmap from today.  Make sure to lay out clearly what things need to happen to get from where you are today to where you want to be.  The sooner-in stuff needs to be much clearer than the further out stuff.

Resource Requirements.  Identify the things you will need to get there, and the timing of those needs – More people?  More marketing money?  A new partner?

Financials.  Lay them out at a high level on an annual basis, on a more detailed level for the upcoming year.

Packaging.  Create a compelling presentation (Powerpoint, Word, or in your case, maybe something more creative) that is crisp and inspiring.

Pre-selling.  Run through it – or a couple of the central elements of it – with one or two key people first to get their buy-in.

Selling.  Do your roadshow – hit all key constituents with the message in one way or another (could be different forms, depending on who).

The best thing to keep in mind is that there is no perfect process, and there’s never a “right answer” to strategy — at least not without the benefit of hindsight!

People have asked me what the time allocation and elapsed time should or can be for this process.  While again, there’s no right answer, I typically find that the process needs at least a full quarter to get right, sometimes longer depending on how many inputs you are tracking down and how hard they are to track down; how fanatical you are about the details of the end product; and whether this is a refresh of an existing strategy or something where you’re starting from a cleaner sheet of paper.  In terms of time allocation, if you are leading the process and doing a lot of the work yourself, I would expect to dedicate at least 25% of your time to it, maybe more in peak weeks.  It’s well worth the investment.

Jan 192012

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase (see last week’s post) of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the Analysis Phase, which goes something like this:

Assemble the facts.  Keep notes along the way on the input phase items, assemble them into a coherent document with key thoughts and common themes highlighted.

Select/apply framework.  Go back to the reading and come up with one or more strategic frameworks.  Adapted them from the academic stuff to fit our situation.  Academic frameworks don’t solve problems on their own, but they do force you to think through problems in a structured way.

Step back.  Leave everything alone for two weeks and try not to think about it.  Come back to it with a fresher set of eyes immediately before starting on the final outputs.

Reality check.  Go back to one or two of the constituents you originally met with to begin laying out your thoughts to them – “try them on for size” – and get the unfiltered visceral reactions.

Next up:  the Output Phase.

Jan 122012

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

One of my readers asked me if I have a formula that I use to develop strategic plans.  While every year and every situation is different, I do have a general outline that I’ve followed that has been pretty successful over the years at Return Path.  There are three phases — input, analysis, and output.  I’ll break this up into three postings over the next three weeks.

The Input Phase goes something like this:

Conduct stakeholder interviews with a few top clients, resellers, suppliers; Board of directors; and junior staff roundtables.  Formal interviews set up in advance, with questions given ahead.  Goal for customers: find out their view of the business today, how we’re serving them, what they’d like to see us do differently, what other products we could provide them.  Goal for Board/staff: get their general take on the business and the market, current and future.

Conduct non-stakeholder interviews with a few industry experts who know the company at least a little bit.  Goal: learn what they think about how we were doing today…and what they would do if they were CEO to grow the business in the future.

Re-skim a handful of classic business books and articles.  Perennial favorite include Good to Great, Contrarian Thinking, and Crossing the Chasm.

Hold a solo visioning exercise.  Take a day off, wander around Central Park.  No phone, no email.  Nothing but thinking about business, your career, where you want everything to head from a high level.

Hold senior staff brainstorming.  Two-day off-site strategy session with senior team and maybe Board.

Next up:  the Analysis Phase.

Mar 312011

Should You Have a Board?

Should You Have a Board?

As I mentioned last week, Fred’s post from a few months ago about an M&A Case study involving WhatCounts had a couple of provocative thoughts in it from CEO David Geller.  The second one I wanted to address is whether or not you should have take on institutional investors and have a Board.  As David said in the post:

Fewer outsiders dictating (or strongly suggesting) direction means that you will be able to pursue your goals more closely and with less friction

Although I have a lot of respect for David, I disagree with the notion that outsiders around the Board table is inherently bad for a business, or at least that the friction from insights or suggestions provided by those outsiders is problematic.

While that certainly CAN be the case, it can also be the case that outside views and suggestions and healthy debate, as long as incentives are aligned, people are smart, and founders manage the discussion well, can be enormously productive for a business.  I recognize that I’ve been very lucky that the Board members we’ve had at Return Path over the years have not been dogmatic or combative or dumb, but I do think selection and management of Board members is something very much in a CEO’s control.

But beyond the issue of who sets the agenda, Boards create an atmosphere of accountability for an organization, which drives performance (and many other positive qualities) from the top down in a business.  Budgeting and planning, reporting on performance, organizing and articulating thoughts and strategy – all these things are crisper when there’s someone to whom a CEO is answering.

As a telling case in points, I’ve known two CEOs over the years in the direct marketing field who have more or less owned their companies but insisted on having Boards.  While I’m not sure if those Boards had the ultimate power to remove the owner as CEO (which is the case in a venture-dominated Board and of course an important distinction), I do know that having a Board served them and their organizations quite well.  The fact that they didn’t have to have “real Boards” but chose to anyway – and ran spectacular businesses – is a good controlled case study for me in the value of this discipline.

Sep 062010

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

Fred has a great post up last week in his MBA Mondays series caled “What a CEO Does.”  His three things (worth reading his whole post anyway) are set vision/strategy and communicate broadly, recruit/hire/retain top talent, and make sure there’s enough cash in the bank.

It’s great advice.  These three are core job responsibilities of any CEO, probably of any company, any size.  I’d like to build on that premise by adding two other dimensions to the list.  Fred was kind enough to offer me a “guest blogger” spot, so this post also appears today on his blog as well.

First, three corollaries – one for each of the three responsibilities Fred outlines.

  • Setting vision and strategy are key…but in order to do that, the CEO must remember the principle of NIHITO (Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office) and must spend time in-market.  Get to know competitors well.  Spend time with customers and channel partners.  Actively work industry associations.  Walk the floor at conferences.  Understand what the substitute products are (not just direct competition).
  • Recruiting and retaining top talent are pay-to-play…but you have to go well beyond the standards and basics here.  You have to be personally involved in as much of the process as you can – it’s not about delegating it to HR.  I find that fostering all-hands engagement is a CEO-led initiative.  Regularly conduct random roundtables of 6-10 employees.  Send your Board reports to ALL (redact what you must) and make your all-hands meetings Q&A instead of status updates.  Hold a CEO Council every time you have a tough decision to make and want a cross-section of opinions.
  • Making sure there’s enough cash in the bank keeps the lights on…but managing a handful of financial metrics on concert with each other is what really makes the engine hum.  A lot of cash with a lot of debt is a poor position to be in.  Looking at recognized revenue when you really need to focus on bookings is shortsighted.  Managing operating losses as your burn/runway proxy when you have huge looming CapEx needs is a problem.

Second, three behaviors a CEO has to embody in order to be successful – this goes beyond the job description into key competencies.

  • Don’t be a bottleneck.  You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects.  Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.
  • Run great meetings.  Meetings are a company’s most expensive endeavors.  10 people around a table for an hour is a lot of salary expense!  Make sure your meetings are as short as possible, as actionable as possible, and as interesting as possible.  Don’t hold a meeting when an email or 5-minute recorded message will suffice.  Don’t hold a weekly standing meeting when it can be biweekly.  Vary the tempo of your meetings to match their purpose – the same staff group can have a weekly with one agenda, a monthly with a different agenda, and a quarterly with a different agenda.
  • Keep yourself fresh…Join a CEO peer group.  Work with an executive coach.  Read business literature (blogs, books, magazines) like mad and apply your learnings.  Exercise regularly.  Don’t neglect your family or your hobbies.  Keep the bulk of your weekends, and at least one two-week vacation each year, sacrosanct and unplugged.

There are a million other things to do, or that you need to do well…but this is a good starting point for success.

css.php