Tag Archives: Management

Business Strategy Is Useless Without Execution


In the last two weeks I’ve posted a three-part series on I’ve posted a series on setting and executing business strategy on the Amex OPEN forum in the last two weeks. I’m happy to see the first of these showing up on top of the trending list there. Here’s a summary:

Start with Strategy

The post is How a Simple Story can Improve Your Business. Here’s the main idea:

It’s simple. Just imagine the story of somebody who has a problem or wants something, finds your business and buys from you. Pretend for a moment that you’re writing a story or talking to a friend about your company. Don’t sweat writing or editing, just make it a simple story you can tell. Go ahead, be creative and let go.

Set Specific Goals and Metrics

The second post in the series is Use Specific Goals to Get Your Business Ahead.

To develop your own useful milestones for your business strategy, think of how an artist squints to see the features of a landscape, and (metaphorically) squint as you look at where you want your business to go. Look for points along the way, moving in the right direction, that you can fix on.

Then Steer. Manage. Stay on Course.

The third post is Steer Your Business on a Steady Course.

The idea of steering applies to real business strategy management in the need for frequent small corrections. It’s hard to make daily details match the big strategy. Even with strategy in place, and milestones and metrics laid out, it still takes regular review and revisions to make sure the focus and priorities in the strategy flow down into the daily details.

To my mind, strategy without execution is useless; and good business planning is nine parts execution for every one part strategy. And execution means setting the goals and then managing them, day by day.

Decision Making is Way Easier Than Decision Doing

Imagine a dark shape in the distant sky, moving towards you. Slowly. It’s white or perhaps off white, but not as clear a color as a cloud, speckled. And it seems more solid than a cloud, and it moves in ways clouds don’t. As it comes closer, maybe a mile away now, it’s as if it’s a flying giant creature. Then, as it gets closer still, you discover that it’s really an unusual flock of birds, flying very tightly together. 

bigstock cloud of birds

That’s a good metaphor for a hard fact about decisions we make. Most of the important big decisions are really made up of thousands of small decisions.

That’s life as well as business. Maybe more life than business.

For example, everybody wants to stay healthy. That’s the big decision. But it doesn’t happen without thousands of small decisions, probably dozens every day. Do I eat the big fat breakfast? Do I take the walk? Do I work out? Do I eat too much, the wrong things, or just right for lunch? Do I drive myself crazy worrying about next week? Do I dwell on my fears or just exhale and let it go? Staying healthy isn’t a big decision but rather a steady collection of small decisions.

For example, everybody wants to do well with their work or school. That’s the big decision. But it doesn’t happen without all those small decisions. In the context of school, every day it’s the choice of homework or not, more study or not, review or not, school work or television, take a nap or read the next chapter? Do I take the extra time to research SEO? Do I write that blog post, or put it off? Do I address the poor performance or let it go? Do I make those calls or put them off? Doing well in work or school isn’t a big decision but rather a steady collection of small decisions.

In my favorite topic area, business planning, doing it right isn’t a big business plan. It’s a just-big-enough business plan that gets reviewed and revised regularly. What makes it valuable is the process, the review, the management that happens because of the contrast between what was planned and what actually happened. And that happens not once but every month, in some contexts every week. Here too, the big decision is really a collection of small ones.

And, dammit, staying with it through the small decisions is hard. We’re human. The big decisions are glaringly obvious. Do you know anybody who doesn’t want to stay healthy, or do well in work or school? But actually executing on those decisions is really hard. We are so human, all of us, that it’s really hard to stick with the big decision without wavering through all the small ones. You can make nine out of ten healthy eating decisions and if the tenth is a Big Mac it nullifies all of the other nine. You can exercise all day one day and then not again for a whole month, and you’re worse off. Consistency is the collection of the small decisions.

Making the right decisions is easy. Making them stick is hard.

(image: bigstockphoto

Crystal Ball and Chain

This is an answer to a question I get way too often. I call it the “Crystal Ball and Chain” problem. I’ve run into it several times as I’ve introduced the planning process into a new company or organization.

People in the organization sometimes fear business planning. In the background, the fear is related to accountability and commitment. Usually they don’t realize it. They state their objection as:

“But how can I possibly know today what’s going to happen six months from now? Isn’t that just a waste of time? Can’t it actually be counter-productive, because it distracts us, and we spend time trying to figure out things in the future?’

I’ve heard this from some people who really did seem to be worried about accountability and commitment, and I’ve heard it from some who were stars on the team, not worried at all about their own position, but legitimately worried about the best thing for management and getting work done.

The answer is that projecting future business activities isn’t a ball and chain at all, because in the right planning process the existence of the plan helps you manage effectively.

Here’s a concrete example: it’s September and you are developing your plan for next year, which includes an important trade show in April. You plan on that trade show and set up a budget for expenses related to that trade show. Even though it’s September, you have a pretty good idea that this will happen in April.

When January rolls around, though, it turns out that the trade show that normally takes place in April will be in June this year. Does that mean the plan was wasted time? Absolutely not! It is precisely because you have a plan running that you catch the change in January, move the expense to June, and adjust some other activities accordingly.

In this example, the plan isn’t a brick wall you run into or a ball and chain that drags you down; no, it’s a helpful tool, like a map or even a GPS device, because it helps you keep track of priorities and manage and adjust the details as they roll into view.

It’s normal for the crystal ball and chain to appear as an objection when a planning process is introduced. The solution is simply good management. The people involved in implementing the plan learn with time how regular plan review sessions help them stay on top of things, and when assumptions change, how the plan changes. Changes are discussed, nobody gets fired, and you have better management.

The underlying idea here is directly related to the paradox in yesterday’s post: business plans are always wrong, but still vital to good management.

(Image: my mashup of two shutterstock.com images)

Age vs. Experience Not Always Obvious

It must be awfully hard to be a Gen Y person and have to deal with all the discussion about Gen Y and Gen Y stereotypes. At least with my generation, the baby boomers, we were all just one big vague hippy-long-hair-freedom stereotype and we didn’t mind it. But with Gen Y, all this stuff about entitlement and selfishness, jeez, what a drag.


One random though here about age vs. experience, that I think works into the Gen Y stereotype and what’s often wrong with it: social media. Specifically, Facebook.

Here’s what I suggest: go back in time to Fall of 2005. Imagine the typical 18-year-old college freshman of that year. She was by definition one of the first fluent users of Facebook. It seemed like second nature to her.

Flash forward to 2012. Seven years later. She’s 25 now, classic Gen Y, and might seem impatient with managers who don’t understand Facebook and Twitter. She’s been working with Facebook from the very beginning, and adapted Twitter in 2007. She’s taken social media as instinct, commonplace, something obvious.

But the world around her thinks she’s demanding too much too soon.

Does that make sense?

Half a Manager is Way Worse Than No Manager

So you’re in charge of other people. Your job includes their jobs. Your success includes making them successful. Congratulations. And good luck. Half head

That means you have to set expectations and follow up with encouragement, advice, collaboration, and honest evaluation of results.

Your full job is inspiration and feedback.

If you just provide inspiration, that’s maybe half your role.

If you just provide feedback, that’s maybe half your role.

If you provide only positive feedback, and no negative feedback — you want to be everybody’s friend, well-liked — you’re only half a manager.

If you provide just negative feedback, no positive — you don’t let them get away with anything — you’re only half a manager.

And half a manager is way worse than no manager at all.

(Image: Liwax/FlickrCC)

MBAs Reinventing Management Is Like Locusts Reinventing Corn

I clicked over to MBAs Aim to Reinvent Management at BusinessWeek.com when I saw the headline. I expected to read about trends towards revising the standard MBA curriculum to deal better with community, environmental, and social concerns. Instead, it was MBA’s revising management:

As part of a contest, MBA students were asked to suggest game-changing management ideas. The winners might just change the way companies operate.

The problem is:  Fresh MBAs tend to have an overabundance of arrogance. In the Business Week piece, program director Gary Hamel, a visiting professor at the London School of Business, talks about “old” and “musty” management practices.  He says:

Management in most companies is rooted 100 years ago in the Industrial Revolution … Creating this contest was a way to get young people to think about the legacy of management they’re inheriting.

Of course he’s right about management. It does need a shot in the arm, and more leadership, and a lot of change. But focusing MBAs on reinventing management is something like focusing locusts on reinventing agriculture. That’s playing weakness to weakness, not strength to strength.

The consolation is the suggestion that won the contest:

To have teams of employees dedicate an entire day to focusing on turning ideas into proposals.

Notice that it says employees, not straight-out-of-school MBAs. Employees are supposed to team up to focus on proposals. At least.

I love the idea of change in MBA curriculums. I love new trends towards teaching more entrepreneurship, and social and ecological conscience, and even leadership as more art than science. And rewriting traditional management techniques is great. But maybe MBAs, while they’re still in school, need a bit more experience with what management actually is before they start reinventing.

Can You Define Good Management Technique?

With due respect to some of the great thinkers who have, I don’t understand how anybody even tries to define, teach, or even predict good management technique.

Even if it’s just one manager and one person being managed, there are already three huge factors: the manager, the other person, and the situation. Both the people involved have their strengths and weaknesses and all that. And the situation itself, what’s going on, is an entire additional set of factors. Then there’s baggage from the past, and, well, it becomes an infinite problem. Higher math. Condemned to infinite case-by-case analysis. screen shot

I think about what I’ve heard about coaches in professional athletics. Sometimes a supposedly hard-nosed, tough coach will win the championship, and sometimes a supposedly “people person,” softer coach, will. And occasionally you hear about a coach who is either hard or soft to each individual player, depending on his sense of how that specific player responds. There too, though, with coaching, it’s a pretty complex problem, because it’s about the nature of the coach, the nature of the player, and the nature of the situation.

So too with wielding authority in your own business.

What reminded me today was Karen Hough’s Handling Tough Conversations in 3 Simple Steps, on Small Business Trends. She’s sharing data from interviews with more than 1,000 of managers in larger companies. She found that the hardest part of their job was “tough conversations.” Here’s a quote:

Conflict makes most people nervous, so we avoid having those tough conversations, even if we know it may produce a better outcome. A study of more than 1,000 project managers across 40 companies found that if project leaders were willing to break a code of silence, they could substantially improve their ability to execute on initiatives.

Although that study was done with middle managers in larger corporations, I know that it applies very well to small business and entrepreneurship. The code of silence is a reluctance to deal with poor performance, bad news, and negative feedback. It’s certainly a problem every manager has to face.

In her post, Karen shares is three-pronged strategy to break what she calls the code of silence, changing the motif from authority to coaching. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it could help. And I wish I had a better solution to offer, but I don’t.

The Soft White Underbelly of Metrics

I believe in metrics. Metrics and management go together.  You really can’t manage without them. But damn, don’t you hate them sometimes?

By metrics I mean measurement: sales dollars, costs per unit of sales, expenses, profits, cash … calls, leads, conversions, page views, presentations, trips, clicks, and all of that. You establish specific metrics, then track results, and manage the difference between plan and actual. For me, that’s critical to business planning, which is critical to business management.

But still, damn! Metrics are a hard master. Take a day off, and metrics go down. I went through December holidays worried that if I didn’t keep up my twitter activity, then my Klout score would go down. Or if I let a day go without a blog post, then my blog grade goes down. There’s no letting up.

And it’s all so visible, too. Every post on this blog has that tweet button on the top right, so when a post is boring, you can tell. And I put my Klout score and blog grade right there on the sidebar, too, where not only I see them, but you too … very stressful. (ok, you’re right, I could take them off, but then what would you think?)

Thank goodness I’ve got a good ego and a strong self image.

5 Tips On the Art of Saying No in Business

Strategy is focus, which is about saying no. Management, particularly in the world of entrepreneurship and small business, boils down to knowing when and how to say no. On the surface, from the outside, that probably seems simple. NoBut try it and it gets a lot more complex.

For example, how do you say no to a new idea without stifling the flow of other new ideas? How do you say no to a bright young enthusiastic person without dampening that enthusiasm? Saying no can be as hard as nails.

Still, you really have to be able to say no to manage a company. And not just to not-so-good ideas, but — and here’s where it really hurts — sometimes even to good ideas that just won’t fit into the space allotted. You need to say no to some things to have any shot at strategic focus. It blends in nicely with the principle of displacement, which is basically that everything you do rules out other things that you don’t do. And you can’t do everything.

I have no delusions about being good at saying no. But maybe that’s why I’m sensitive to the problem.  I do have some tips, developed through the years, that might help you.

1.  Recognize the problem.

It starts with recognizing the problem. Yes, you have to say no; but realize that every no answer reduces the chance of another idea or suggestion coming forward. Be very mindful of the problem. You’ve got a strike against you. Be aware of it.

You’ve got some explaining to do.

2.  Blame the company, and the situation, not the idea itself.

It wasn’t a bad idea, it’s that this company needs to do something differently right now because of these company-related reasons. Actually it’s a great idea and it’s really disappointing that we don’t have the resources to jump on it now. We’re stuck in this valley and we need to get up on that hill so we can start working on great ideas like this one.

3.  Blame displacement.

So, given displacement, it’s not that your idea isn’t great; it’s that we can’t jump on it without pulling off of some of the things we’re already doing. What do you think? Which of our priorities can we adjust? Where do we cut time, money, effort, and resources from something else so we can get them for this new thing. Where do you think those other things are off base?

4. Reward the idea and suggestion.

You can fight the sting of a rejected idea by rewarding the person even without adopting the idea. “Even though we can’t move forward with that, I love the creativity and that you made the suggestion,” you say, “so take somebody out to dinner with the company card.” Or give some other immediate reward, a small bonus, extra time off, whatever works in your context.

5. Keep an idea archive for the future.

Find somewhere in your organization to keep a file on new ideas and suggestions. Just putting them into the file reduces the sting of having said no. And sometimes that file becomes a source for solutions to future problems. It’s a quick way to give value to the ideas that didn’t fit, and reinforce the organization’s respect for ideas and suggestions, even without implementing them.

Too Many Bullets and Not Enough Zen

I posted here Monday on Kermit Pattison’s interview with Randy Komisar. That was about the writing, which I found intriguing. I can’t resist commenting as well on what Randy Komisar says there.  He’s now a partner in prestigious VC firm Kleiner Perkins, and has been a co-founder, CEO, or founding director of several major successes including Apple’s Claris, Tivo, and LucasArts. carrots and sticksAnd what he says there is brilliant.

On classic mistakes of manager-wannabe-leaders:

A key point here is that leaders aren’t necessarily managers, and vice-versa. Randy says assuming a good manager is a good leader is “a classic mistake.” Here’s more:

Management is more operationally focused. It’s more of a supervisory role of setting priorities, allocating resources, and directing the execution. Leadership is more forward thinking, more about enabling the organization, empowering individuals, developing the right people, thinking strategically about opportunities, and driving alignment.

On needing the right kind of leadership at the right time:

The conversation there goes through how CEOs are like breeds of dogs, and I’ll leave you to click to the original to get Randy’s description of the retriever, the bloodhound, the husky, and the St. Bernard. The important lesson there, which I completely believe, is:

There are different talents in the creation of businesses and running of businesses that need to be taken into consideration.

And Randy fills that idea in with practical examples:

A mistake often made in the venture investment business is rushing to bring in a big CEO into what is still a small venture. The mismatch of skills is severe. The big CEO needs resources, needs a strong sense of direction and momentum, and is not very effective day-to-day with a bunch of people putting bits and bytes together. The other mismatch that’s harder to foresee is the small company with momentum. You say, great, let’s bring in the guy who can grow it to $100 million and take it public. The problem is that you may face yet another significant right or left hand turn in your business which that CEO may be completely unqualified to do.

Too Many Bullets and Not Enough Zen

This is my second post on that phrase now — bullets and zen — and I’m still loving it. Kermit asks Randy who’s being particularly thoughtful about leadership lately. I love his answer (warning: this is another Zen reference, even after my not Zen post last week. Discretion is advised.)

I’ve given up on the guru model and think more in the Zen model: things will change and that’s okay. What we need is a set of constant provocations. What I like to read are those things that really challenge my assumptions, authors who are willing to think differently, no matter whether I agree with them or not, because they at least broaden my own thinking. What I don’t like reading is the pablum–the 10 habits of great leaders or whatever. Those are constraining and not very effective for the average person.

I agree. Well said.