Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rethinking strategic planning

Effective planning is an essential component of any worthwhile endeavor. But the traditional strategic plan is looking more and more archaic in the Internet Age. For some time now, respected business commentators like Tom Peters have been dissing strategic planning as too slow and too inflexible for many businesses that need to be able to dart around icebergs rather than slam into them.

Into the fray steps James F. Hollan, a C.E.O. of a non-profit association who questions all the time and effort that goes into plans that end up on a shelf or worse. Writing for Associations Now magazine, his "The Perils of Strategic Planning" no doubt will send a chill up the spine of every business executive and consultant that wrestles with these things.

For the Piñata Manager™, caught between navel-gazing executives and antsy employees, a crisp strategic plan can be the point of the spear that helps drive the operation forward. A bad one is a tome to be ignored, circumvented and, after a couple of drinks, mocked.

I'm not saying get rid of strategic plans. But spend some quiet time reading Mr. Hollan's Opus, and then ask yourself: Does our strategic plan articulate our future direction in a clear and compelling way? Are we nimble? Can we turn on a dime to take advantage of opportunities or avoid threats? Can every employee see their contribution somewhere in the strategic plan? How much did we pay our strategic planning consultant?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Leveraging resources

I'm a sucker for spy stuff. I loved "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," anything James Bond and my all-time fave, "The Bourne Identity." There are many spy lessons that can be translated to business, namely gathering good information and understanding what it is telling you, adapting to changing conditions and making effective use of your resources.

Another fun spy-related diversion is the USA network show "Burn Notice," which chronicles the misadventures of U.S. spy Michael Westen (starring Jeffrey Donovan), who unexpectedly gets a "burn notice" (pink slip for the rest of us) and is now stuck in Miami with no money, no identity and trying to figure out who "burned" him and why. Think "Miami Vice" meets "MacGyver." One of the show's charms is the narration by Westen on tips and tricks used by spooks to accomplish their mission. Not that we'd ever really need to know how to rig a cell phone into a surveillance device, but it's still loads of fun.

In one recent episode, Westen and his chums faced a dilemma: they needed to repossess a speedboat from some Jamaican crime lords who were armed to the teeth. Clearly outmanned and outgunned, they needed to outsmart the bad guys.

Which brings me to today's Piñata Manager™ lesson of the day: To achieve your objective, you often need to leverage resources outside of your normal area of influence (your budget, staff, etc.). In the case above, what turned the tables on the bad guys with a simple phone call to 9-1-1. Westen's partner made a phony call to police saying he spotted people loading what looked like bags of drugs on to a boat nearby. When the police showed up to investigate, our hero calmly walked up the dock to the bad guys, presented some paperwork, and announced he was repossessing their boat. When the bad guys objected and reached for their concealed weapons, Westen calmly suggested they call over the cops to sort the whole thing out. After all, the cops were just one dock over. Of course, the bad guys wanted nothing to do with cops, and our hero calmly stepped on the boat and sped off without firing a shot.

In this case, Westen used his smarts to leverage resources that were otherwise unavailable to him. Mind you, I'm not advocating making false police reports. But you get the idea. Getting the job done means building alliances and connections far beyond your normal operating parameters and bringing them to bear to fill a gap or to amplify your resources. The military calls this "force multipliers."

To succeed in business, learn from our friends in covert operations and you, too, can say, "mission accomplished."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Seven P's

Many moons ago I was going through a management training class led by an ex-military officer, and eventually the discussion came around to planning. As any manager worth his or her salt knows, lack of good planning is at the root of most problems. And, no doubt, you've heard the folksy sayings that underscore this idea, such as, "Failing to plan is planning to fail."

During his talk, our trainer peppered his presentation with classic military terminology that the military and non-military alike could appreciate. There was the infamous "SNAFU," or "Situation Normal -- All Fouled Up." And of course "blivit," which, loosely translated, means 10 pounds of manure in a 5 pound bag. If you've ever had a project go south on you, you know what I'm talking about.

But midway thorough the presentation, our trainer made a passing reference to the "Seven P's" and got a few knowing nods of approval from others (I presumed) who also served in the military. Since the closest I've ever come to serving my country in uniform was watching all 10 episodes of "Band of Brothers," I was at a disadvantage, so on a break I asked him to define the "Seven P's."

He explained that the military is acronym crazy, probably because they are snappy and easy to remember when bullets are flying over your head. The Seven P's, he said, stand for:


OK, now I admit that "failing to plan is planning to fail" might be a better phrase for a dinner table discussion, but I always seem to gravitate to the Seven P's when I'm working on a gnarly project that looks more like a blivit and is halfway to a SNAFU.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Leadership lessons from a famous ship builder

A friend of mine sent me this, which I'm certain has been floating around the 'net, but I thought it was worthwhile to share:

Everything I need to know about life, I learned from Noah's Ark:

1) Don't miss the boat.

2) Remember that we are all in the same boat.

3) Plan ahead. It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark.

4) Stay fit. When you're 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.

5) Don't listen to critics; just get on with the job that needs to be done.

6) Build your future on high ground.

7) For safety's sake, travel in pairs.

8) Speed isn't always an advantage. The snails were on board with the cheetahs.

9) When you're stressed, float a while.

10) Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by professionals.

Monday, September 1, 2008

UCLA coach sticks to his guns

Excellent Piñata Manager™ lessons are all around us. Tonight's UCLA-Tennesse college football game is a case in point. In his first game as coach of his alma mater, UCLA head football coach Rick Neuheisel (a former UCLA star quarterback himself) watched in dismay as his young replacement quarterback, Kevin Craft, threw four interceptions in the first half, including one that is run back for a go-ahead touchdown. On national TV.

In the second half his quarterback comes out and looks like a world-beater, leading the Bruins to three scores and, ultimately, a pressure-packed 27-24 overtime win against a nationally ranked opponent. What changed at halftime? Neuheisel said there was no question he was going to stick with his quarterback. What did he tell him at halftime that turned things around? In a post-game interview with ESPN, Neuheisel said: "I told him I threw four interceptions the first time I played, and I ended up having a pretty good career, so we're going to stick with you."

Piñata Manager™ lesson of the week: Pick talented people, prepare them well, and then have confidence in them, even when they take a beating. That's pretty good leadership.

A round of hickory burgers from Westwood institution "The Apple Pan" for Rick Neuheisel and the rest of his coaching staff.