“The world has outpaced us. In the time it took us to move a play from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan had been devised would have changed. By the time it had been implemented, the plan — however ingenious in its initial design — was often irrelevant.”— Stan McChrystal
I begin this Thursday Thought with this quote from Stanley McChrystal to highlight how many organisations (in his case the US army) spend an inordinate amount of time planning. If you work in a large, bureaucratic organisation or even a moderately-sized established one, that line will speak to you. In such organisations, even if you conceive the best idea in the world must go through layers of approval, buy-ins, political inclusions, and political exclusions in a snakes and ladders process hoping to get the idea to the finish line. Even when you make it there, you arrive there worn down, mentally bruised and battered, and your strategy is a shadow of the original idea. To make matters worse, by the time you got approval, a more nimble organisation or startup not only executed a better strategy but has already moved on to the next one.
Fire, Ready, Aim
I worked in one such organisation and my boss once made a derogatory statement about me during a team meeting. To give context, I was only in the role for a few weeks and I released a minimal viable product. It turned out that this product had been in planning for almost 18 months and she didn’t like the fact that it took a little over 18 days to get an MVP into the marketplace using existing products mashed together.”Oh Aidan, you are quite Fire, Ready, Aim!”, she said snidely. “Thank you”, I responded. While I took it as a compliment at the time, I have since learned that my approach was wrong. I believe wholeheartedly in getting an MVP out the door, but doing so without full buy-in is a sure way to shoot the idea in the foot. The idea of Fire, Ready, Aim is to have a target to learn from, not necessarily to hit the bullseye. Unfortunately for most legacy organisations or startups suffering from the current tightening of the belt, the following is more reflective of their arduous journey.
Ready, Ready, Ready
Strategic planning 101 includes a mix of rigorous market research, and pristine planning followed by slow buy-in trickled up and down the hierarchy. “Have you shown this to Jeff?”, “What did Mary say?” “What did Ops think?” By the time everyone has their say, your great concept looks nothing like you had planned it and an unknown competitor has launched a better version and is hoovering up all the clients and has developed a reputation as the supplier of choice for this new product.
Strategic planning and careful execution are hallmarks of good management, but the rules are very different when it comes to a business world in flux, coupled with the introduction of a disruptive innovation. As we discuss on the recent “Innovation Byte” with Geoff Marlow, this mindset is a legacy that stems from the Strategic Planning era of the 1960s to 1990s. The vast majority of executives have learned to manage innovation in a sustaining context, where analysis and planning were feasible. As the late Clayton Christensen wrote, “Companies whose investment processes demand quantification of market sizes and financial returns before they can enter a market get paralyzed or make serious mistakes when faced with disruptive technologies. They demand market data when none exists and make judgments based on financial projections when neither revenues nor costs can be known. Using planning and marketing techniques that were developed to manage sustaining technologies in the very different context of disruptive ones is an exercise in flapping wings.”
The problem of Ready, Ready, Ready, Aim, Aim is exasperated by the characteristics of disruptive technologies. Such innovations enable new markets, so how can you possibly aim when there is nothing to aim at? The organisations that create the target are much more likely to hit it.
While the dilemma is a persistent one for leaders, it also impacts employees. Employees are growing increasingly impatient with slow, methodical approaches to change. When organisations insist on proven methods, they lose the very people who are comfortable with change. In many cases, they actively eradicate them. When it comes to disruptive change, the reality is we must accept the many misses that enable the hits.
Thanks for Reading