We Improvise

“Not one plan, but four plans?” I wanted confirmation from Roberto.

He nodded. “I was in the Marines. We had a saying, ‘We don’t plan. We improvise.’ But, improvisation only works if you are prepared with a plan. What’s the first part of every plan?”

“Purpose,” I replied. “We all have intentions, mostly unspoken. A plan is created when intentions become a documented purpose.”

“Improvisation only works when there is a commonly agreed-to purpose,” Roberto continued. “Without a purpose, improvisation becomes chaos. The chaos may be interesting, but it accomplishes little. Purpose drives the next step.”

“Visualization,” I replied.

“Everyone on the team must agree to the purpose and hold a similar vision of what that future state looks like,” Roberto explained.

“How do we know the picture each holds is close to the same picture of their elbowed teammate?”

“Simple,” Roberto grinned. “They talk to each other. It’s a discussion. It is the necessary work of improvisation. When all hell breaks loose, we have to be prepared to make the micro-decisions of the moment, in concert. Serendipity doesn’t happen by random chance. Serendipity is all about our intentions.”

“And?”

“And only then can we create the mile markers to chart our progress, the goals, objectives of our micro-decisions. What looks like serendipity only occurs when we create the context of a plan in which to operate. It may appear we are winging it, but our actions require preparation to be effective toward our purpose.”

Scenario Planning

“You had a pretty good year, last year,” I said. “What was your secret?”

“It was a solid plan, flawlessly executed,” Roberto flatly stated with a smile.

“I know that’s not true,” I replied. “I mean, I know you had a plan, but, that’s not what happened.”

Roberto’s smile turned into a grin. “Your observation is correct. We didn’t have a plan. We had four plans. We took the two largest variables that would impact our business and played them out in four quadrants. We played each variable up and each variable down in combination. At the time, what we thought would happen was very far from what actually happened. If we had not had three alternate scenarios, we would have been sunk.”

“And this next year?” I asked.

“Same. We thought we were finally getting back to normal, then Ukraine, protests in China and Iran, now a looming rail strike. You have to plan for contingencies, not just what you think will happen.”

A tip of the hat to Gideon Malherbe.

The Two Strategic Questions

When I was in journalism, I was taught to answer the 4 “W”s. Who, what, where and when?

This is planning season and companies across the globe are asking those questions. The multi-day retreat is called strategic planning, but in most cases, it is tactical planning. Here are the questions again, only two are strategic.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How? (I know it doesn’t start with “W”)
  • Which?
  • Why?

The responses to the list are mostly tactical.

Given two or more choices (and there are always at least two choices), which choice fits our strategy? Given two or more choices, why would we choose one over another? Those are the strategic questions.

Rolling Forward

Seventeen year’s ago, (Nov 2004) we began this writing sojourn. I want to thank you for taking a precious minute out of your day to observe those events around you, reflect on your impact and think about the next move you make.

Management Blog will be back next Monday. Don’t eat too much turkey. -Tom

Discretion in the Quality of the Data

“You describe the role as entry level. The output must conform to strict guidelines, which creates the quality standard. What are the decisions that must be made in connection with the work?”

Arlene was shaking her head from side to side. “We don’t allow a lot of latitude with this work. Sending prescription drugs by common carrier is serious business.”

“You think you don’t allow latitude. In fact, you tell your team members there isn’t a lot of latitude, when in fact there is. There are a ton of decisions that must be made.”

Arlene was quiet.

“Look, most of the prescribed duties involve collecting data from your customers to determine their qualifications. While it seems cut and dried, there are many decisions that must be made about the quality of their responses, the accuracy and completeness of the data.

  • Is the customer address we have on file their current mailing address?
  • Is the customer mailing address the same as the shipping address?
  • Is the telephone number we have on file a mobile number we can send a confirmation text message to?
  • Will the shipping priority we have on file assure the product reaches the customer on time?
  • If the customer does not answer the door, is it okay to leave the product on the front porch, or is there another more secure location?

“The difference between ok performance and outstanding performance is not in filling out the forms, but in the decisions related to the quality of the data that goes on the forms. The job may be completing the forms, but the work is the decisions that must be made.

“An important discussion between the manager and the team member is not about the forms, but about those decisions.”

Entry Level Work, Not Cut and Dried

“I still don’t know what you are getting at,” Arlene shook her head. “It’s entry level work. You are right, it’s not that interesting.”

“Don’t be so swift,” I reprimanded. “Let’s talk about this entry-level work. First, what is work?”

Arlene was looking up, retrieving the answer planted in her mind some weeks ago. “I remember. Work is making decisions and solving problems.”

“Okay. And what decisions must be made in connection with this entry-level work?”

“It’s pretty cut and dried,” Arlene related. “Our work is highly regulated. Everything we do has to be within very specific guidelines.”

“And what if it’s not cut and dried,” I challenged. “You see, the guidelines you work under only set the quality standards for the output. Let’s ask the question again. What decisions must be made in connection with this work? And as we answer, I think you will find this work is quite a bit more than entry-level.”

Interest in the Work (Not the Job)

“What’s missing in this young recruit’s career?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Arlene replied. “All she seemed interested in was how many vacation days she is going to get.”

“Why do you think she is focused on her vacation days? What’s missing? What was missing in her work before she came to your company two months ago? And perhaps is still missing in her work?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Arlene. “It is pretty basic, entry level work. Perhaps there really isn’t that much to focus on, except how much vacation comes with the job.”

“You might be right be right about the job,” I agreed. “But what about the work?”

First Look Outside

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
Our company is preparing for our annual strategic planning session. Sometimes, it just seems like an exercise to increase our net sales by ten percent and our net profit by two percent. If that is all we are doing, why do we spend two days off-site?

Response:
Some companies think that to increase our net sales by ten percent, we just need to increase our sales team and their efforts by ten percent. Some companies think that to increase our net profit by two percent, we just need to become more efficient and cut waste by two percent. These may be worthy objectives, but we hardly need two days off-site to think like that.

Strategic planning requires that we look at those external circumstances that are constraining the defined objectives in front of us. Adding ten percent more sales people to the team will not increase sales if our market is no longer interested in our product or service. What has changed about our market? What has changed about our competitors? What has changed about our vendors?

Cutting waste by two percent does not inform us about the changes in technology that create efficiencies on the order of 10 percent or 20 percent. What has changed about technology surrounding our business model? What has changed about our external labor system that may require us to look harder at technology as a solution?

What headwinds are created by new regulations, financial regulations, safety regulations, environmental regulations? What is the financial climate for infusions of external cash, lines of credit, institutional debt, private equity?

Most of these questions are not about internal factors, but external systems that have an impact on the way we internally organize.

Customers, Strategy and Structure

Structure follows strategy. Strategy follows customers. It all starts with a customer.

  • Who is your target customer segment?
  • Who is your best customer?
  • What is your best customer’s profile? How do we recognize them?
  • What does your customer need? What is necessary in your customer’s life?
  • What does your customer want? What is your customer’s preference?
  • How will you collect that data? How much data do you need?
  • How will you analyze that data?
  • How will you verify the accuracy of your analysis?

Strategy follows customers?

  • Based on what your customer needs, what is necessary in your customer’s life, what product or service can you produce to satisfy that need?
  • Will your customer be willing to pay a price for your product or service that allows you to make a reasonable profit?
  • In the profit for your product or service, is there enough volume to sustain your company’s operation?
  • Is your product or service exclusive to your company, or do competitors offer a similar product or service perceived on an equal basis?
  • Based on your customer’s preference, what will make your customer decline your competitor’s offering and buy from you? What is your competitive advantage?
  • How can you create that competitive advantage in a way that is sustainable, difficult or impossible to copy by your competitor?
  • How can you effectively communicate the competitive advantage to your customer?
  • How can you operationalize your competitive advantage to make is real, observable and obvious?

Your responses to these questions will guide your structure.

  • What core functions do you need to create the product or service your customer needs?
  • What support functions do you need to meet your customer’s preferences in the way they want to buy?
  • In each function, what is the level of work required to sustainably produce the desired outputs?
  • In what way does each function need to integrate with its neighboring functions related to work handoffs?
  • What is the output capacity of each function, and how does its output match the output capacity of its neighboring functions?

Customers drives strategy, strategy drives structure.

What’s the Level of Work Required?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You say that management initiatives (like communication, efficiency, goal setting and teamwork) will flounder if laid on the wrong structure. How do you get your structure right?

Response:
Determine the number of layers (only minimum necessary).
Determine the functions required.
Inside each function, determine the level of work required.

You are the captain of your business model, you get to decide the level of work that is necessary. Think about core functions and support functions. Some functions will require more intensity than others, and some functions not at all.

  • Marketing – If your business model only requires a brochure type website that gets updated from time to time, you will likely outsource that project, and need only skeleton support in marketing. If your business model requires a sophisticated website that attracts customers who roll over into an online order, you may need Marketing at S-III.
  • Sales – If your business model is a telephone center receiving product orders from consumers, likely 2-4 minutes on the phone, you may only require order takers at S-I. If your sales cycle is longer, 3-4 months, you may need S-II account executives. If your sales cycle is longer than a year, you may need S-III.
  • Account Management or Project Management – The level of work you need will likely depend on the length of your project. Two to three weeks with very few moving parts may only require Hi-S-I. If your projects are 2-3 years in scope, you may need S-IV project management.
  • Operations – the level of work you need in Ops will need to consider the length of time the project is in direct service delivery or production, but must also account for the lead time on resources, mechanical maintenance, or special technical elements.
  • Quality Assurance or Quality Control – may require timespan consideration through the production cycle, but may also need to consider the length of warranty periods or product lifecycles.
  • Research and Development – in new product development cycles, level of work may easily require system work and root cause analysis at S-III. Sustaining engineering may only require S-II.
  • Logistics – may be just in time loading dock work at S-I, but may also include long term contracts with carriers at S-III.
  • Human Resources – level of work depends if you only need clerical filing of required forms, active recruiting from your labor system, or strategic recruiting in specialized technical fields.
  • Accounting and Finance – level of work will depend on the sophistication of your accounting requirements, simple bookkeeping to project costing, to credit facilities.

You get to decide the level of work required.