Strategy and the Fat Smoker

I had a conversation with a journalist the other day who asked me if the best way of weathering the recession was to put strategic plans on hold in favour of more tactical actions that produce more immediate results. I resisted the temptation to snarl and politely told him that if I see yet another email coming out from Business Link and the like telling me how to “cut costs and save money during the recession” I’ll scream!

These articles and related ideas focus purely on tactics in the absence of a strategy. Yes, I agree that it’s sensible practice to, for example, reduce traditional marketing communication costs and do more e-marketing because it’s generally cheaper. But are we throwing the baby out with the bath water? Have we stopped to think about how our existing customers and prospects want to be communicated with? Have we linked this back to our strategic objectives of communicating with our existing clients 6 times a year and reaching 100 new prospects? I doubt it.

Having been through three downturns in the economy (let’s not call them recessions), I’ve seen how senior management in tough times often forget how to think. We all need to take the time to think things through. The trouble is that often the action is an immediate response to an immediate stimulus; the knee-jerk reaction of a rabbit caught in the headlights (forgive my tirade of mixed metaphors). Why do we do this? As David Maister says,” As human beings, we are not good at delayed gratification. We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely—until the next time we pretend to be on the program.”

We don’t focus on the long term good health of our business (or ourselves) because the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future. The disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate. So it’s easier and less painful to go for the quick fix, the immediate hit of “I’ve taken action now”. Think about it and that’s exactly what alcoholics and drug addicts do, or fat smokers for that matter. [The title ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker’ is taken from David Maister’s excellent new book, available here.]

Let’s explore how individuals, managers and organisations can overcome the temptations of the short-term and actually do what they already know is good for them.

I am clinically trained in Transactional Analysis (TA) and so my professional suggestion would be to stop and hold back the impulse to act. Revisit the desire to act in 24 hours, by which time hopefully you will have decided if it’s a sensible course of action linked to your strategy or maybe it was just the need for an instant quick fix.

A lay person who arrives at the scene of a traffic accident may rush in to help by pulling a person out of a car, or tying up a bleeding arm; those actions could make a condition even more serious. The ambulance crew, by contrast, who suspend immediate action by performing a triage; assessing each individual, using first the eyes and then touch, to determine the full extent and seriousness of the injuries. Only then will they perform first aid to one, rush another to hospital, and so on. This is professionalism and leadership. If the desire for action is suspended then all sorts of warning signals begin to show that the adrenalin of the immediate action would have masked.

So slow down a bit to allow proper thinking rather than just doing. Strategy means saying no, taking a leadership position and ensuring that you as the leader are right there with your people. Not directing them via email or an ivory tower. You are with them, communicating directly on a regular basis.

Written by Cindy Barnes