By Don Schmincke
“Every year we invest in a 2-day strategic planning retreat.
But we never seem to leapfrog the competition. We achieve parity at
best, but not the market penetration I hoped for.” - CEO overheard
at an industry conference
Over twenty years of research finds thousands of CEOs voicing
their frustration with strategic planning efforts. Not a new
complaint, the issue has been exposed in books like Henry
Mintzberg’s Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning or by
notables like Tom Peters describing the 10 percent success rates of
strategy as “wildly inflated.” It’s not that spending time on
strategic planning is bad, but what should executives do
An answer was recently found in a unique laboratory – the
death zone; that altitude above 26,000 feet where lack of oxygen
threatens long-term survival. Here, climbers resemble executives.
They live passionately while confronting impossible odds. Some are
deeply humble while others are psychotic narcissists. They come with
all levels of competence, from naive wannabes to elite athletes. And
when put to the test, climbers react like executives: sometimes
heroically, other times self-destructively.
Instead of finding
new methods that separate great executives from the not so great,
the research exposed something else. Remarkably, executives who
create and execute great strategies in the face of extreme
challenges – let’s call them high altitude leaders – walk a
different path. Rather than apply newly discovered methods, they
succeed instead by recognizing and surviving specific dangers.
Dangers always emerge when executives take their companies to higher
levels. In the most extreme situations, on battlefields or
mountains, these dangers can result in death.
ignored in the literature, four dangers threaten every executive
team when they engage in strategic planning:
Fear of Death:
Last year at 26,500 feet on K2, an experienced Sherpa slipped of the
edge into the darkness. He would fall for several minutes before
hitting the glacier below. All the climbers stopped as the fear of
death gripped them. This jeopardized what could be a successful
The same happens in
strategic planning. Unconscious anxiety about the death of a
project, product line, sales target, market, career, or strategic
goal causes executives to freeze. When this happens, strategic
breakthroughs are jeopardized as managers shirk great decisions,
avoid taking risks, stop challenging each other, and resist changes.
leaders free up strategic thinking by embracing death. This
unleashes innovation versus preserving the status quo, creates new
opportunities versus resisting the inevitable death of a cherished
product or market. Ancient and contemporary leaders call it “dying
before battle.” Companies facing bankruptcy can experience the same
effect; a freedom to take risks and pursue innovative strategies.
What decision is your strategy team avoiding? What long overdue
actions would they take today if the company was really dying?
At high altitudes, selfishness kills people when new strategies are
critically needed to deal with injuries, equipment malfunction,
limited resources, and threats of avalanche and weather. Likewise,
in strategic planning selfishness kills new ideas and covers up
problems as executives let personal agendas drive strategy
development. Post-mortem business case studies blame corporate
failures on reasons like strategic missteps or poor implementations
of good ideas. But digging deeper among the carcasses reveals that
selfishness alone drove the agendas or cover-ups until it was too
late. This explains why resources get misallocated, decisions become
watered down and the organizational commitment wanes.
leaders, on the other hand, drive from a fervor and zeal for
achieving strategic results that rises above selfishness. They
inspire a higher passion in others by creating a compelling saga
(from the ancient Norse term). For thousands of years executives
aligned the masses on strategic execution via a shared drama.
“Many executives today are taught to avoid the drama;
and is why so many are outrun by so few.”
Passion is profit.
When passions are greater than selfish agendas, creative strategy
emerges. Is your team driven by a passionate saga or just empty
words in a mission statement? Or maybe they’re just going through
perfunctory planning retreat activities and missing the point, which
leads us to the next danger: Tool Seduction.
In mountaineering, tool seduction endangers climbers every time they
dress in the latest gear but apply the wrong techniques and
behaviors to the challenge. In their overconfidence (or naiveté),
they end up lost on a storm-ravaged slope for days while experienced
climbers are at base camp having a beer and watching the weather.
Similarly, facilitators packing the latest tools and processes for
strategic planning bog down progress and distract teams from
focusing on the vital issues. But tools are important, right?
Yes. Tools offer
hope. Tools make people feel like they have the right answer. Who
dares argue with the ideas from a best-selling business book? But
the results aren’t pretty when you get seduced by the buzzwords and
cool concepts. Tool seduction detours the planning process from real
strategic thinking into a labyrinth of mechanical, analytical
processes. This explains why the majority of strategic plans aren’t
strategic, but tactical; even though they have a “strategic plan”
cover. Executives possessed by tool seduction confuse strategic
planning with analysis; contrary to Kenichi Ohmae’s observation that
true strategy lies beyond analysis – it exists in the domain of
intuition. Why do companies who drive superior market performance
ignore industry expert analysis and advice? Industry experts only
know what is already known. Your job is to out-intuit what is known,
to outmaneuver the competition.
leaders don’t get seduce by tools, and avoid the seduction that
diminishes intuition. Do your planning team’s tools support creative
transformation of your beliefs, or distract you with
fill-in-the-blank, analytical processes? Do your tools enable you to
act decisively, or just clog your shelves with interesting, but
irrelevant, information? Avoiding tool seduction helps fuel team
passion for the challenge ahead instead of derailing the team with
useless meetings, lingo, and processes. But even if your strategic
planning team does it all right and survives fear, selfishness, and
tool seduction, it still must contend with the coward within.
Cowardice dangerously stops both mountaineering and corporate teams
from challenging the status quo, holding each other accountable, and
exposing weaknesses. This danger happens as soon as planning team
members are too afraid to confront previous violations of
accountability or take necessary risks with each other. And it
causes strategy failures by stopping the essential act needed for
effective strategic planning – telling the truth.
Cowardice eats truth.
Lack of truth eats strategy.
the truth can upset people and cause discomfort, but good planning
teams love it and it drives accountability to new levels. The
alternative of keeping the truth at unspeakable levels only produces
collateral damage – dead-weight ideas and doomed projects. High
altitude leaders develop bravery, which allows them to achieve the
risk-taking, commitment, and truthful communication necessary for
innovating strategy. Rather than reveal the truth about a situation
does your team choose avoidance, denial, and silence in order to
avert possible discomfort, anger, or retribution? Do team members
whisper about uncomfortable issues outside the meeting?
Being aware of the above dangers, which can emerge in strategic
planning sessions, helps executives reach higher summits in real
strategic thinking; and not get deluded into tactical distractions.
The intuitive strategies that result drive much higher market-share
penetration, profitability, and commitment.
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