In Search of the Canadian Hippo

In Search of the Canadian Hippo

During the years we lived in Canada, my family became fond of Canadian Heritage Moments.  These were sixty-second vignettes that depicted formative moments in Canadian history. One of my favorites has the intrepid French explorer Jacques Cartier arriving in the valley of the St. Lawrence River in the year 1534 and encountering a group of Iroquois. The leader of the tribe approaches the French party and invites them to visit his nearby village.  The viewer, having the benefit of English subtitles, learns that the word for village in Iroquois is “kanata.” Cartier turns to the priest on his right and asks “What is he saying, father?” The priest hesitates a moment and then announces confidently: “He is saying that the name of this nation is Canada!”  A helpful and obviously intelligent young man steps up behind Cartier and says “Begging your pardon, sir, but he’s inviting you to visit him in his village. Canada is his word for village.” The priest asserts his authority, dismissing the young man, and off they go.  And the rest is history! Enjoy the story at When exploring new territory, it’s best to draw as much as possible on the collective intelligence of the group when assessing the situation. This is truer than ever in our organizations, and at least as true as it was in Cartier’s time.  Cartier, after all, thought he was in Asia. One of the biggest mistakes we make in strategic planning is assuming that the future will be more or less like the past. It won’t. It’s critical to articulate – and question – our assumptions about the environment we operate in, in terms of what our customers value, what our competition is offering, and the impacts of big forces like technology and the economy. Many of our organizational ways derive from a simpler time, when we could rely on the experience of people who’d been around longer for an accurate assessment of the situation. In one of my classes, a student raised his hand and said “That’s what we call the HiPPO principle.  It means that decisions are made based on the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” In rapidly changing times, making strategic assessments and decisions based on what worked in the past may prove short sighted. A well-managed system for tracking and reporting strategic metrics is the compass that leaders and staff throughout the organization can use to learn from experience and align their actions in pursuit of better value for customers. We recommend that you:
  • Schedule periodic reviews of your assumptions about your macro-environment and stay tuned for new information that may challenge these assumptions
  • Agree on the strategic performance metrics that matter to you as an integral part of your planning process – not after the fact
  • Maintain an especially acute focus on tracking customer experience and value
  • Incorporate those metrics into your scorecard and make scorecard review a regular item on your leadership meeting agenda
What’s the Value in Having Values?

What’s the Value in Having Values?

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” – Roy E. Disney

Values can sometimes seem like the stepchild of strategic planning.  The guts of a strategic plan can include a results-oriented vision translated into specific objectives, measures and initiatives that will support it.

Values, on the other hand, can feel a bit fuzzy. Often, people think of values as a “do-gooder” thing. The exercise of defining values may feel like an exercise in identifying lofty sentiments rather than guiding day-to-day behavior.

Edgar Schein, who has made a career of studying organizational culture and values, makes a distinction between “espoused values” – the things we say we believe in – and “shared tacit assumptions” – the often unspoken assumptions about “the way things are” that actually shape our behavior. All organizations have values, whether these are explicit or not.

This last point is important. For example, Enron had a list of four values that sounded very convincing: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. There also were a number of other values, such as “consistent profits quarter over quarter no matter what,” that weren’t stated, yet were the primary drivers of management behaviors – hidden from public view until it was too late.

These kinds of values – stating things that sound nice but don’t really guide our behavior – are what we call “lobbyware.” They look good on a plaque but don’t really say anything about how we make decisions.

There’s nothing wrong with having a value based on profit—this is how businesses grow and sustain over time. I was working with the executive team of a privately-held company, defining values as part of Step 1 of the Institute’s Nine Step process, and the CEO proposed a value of “profit.” Some of his executives were mildly horrified, to say the least.  They were coming from the paradigm that all values have to be “nice,” and felt that somehow focusing on profit just wouldn’t be very motivating to most employees.  The CEO’s response was telling – “If we don’t make a profit, we’re out of business. And we’re all out of a job.”  Similarly, in the non-profit world, we hear the slogan “No margin, no mission.”

And, all values aren’t necessarily “humanistic” attributes like teamwork, respect, or public service. Values create both an ethical and a practical compass that influences actions and decision in every-day situations. In a “lean” company like Toyota, for example, values include “Go to where the work is done and find the facts,” “Encourage Consistency,” and “Reduce Waste” – all part of a rigorous emphasis on continuous, measureable process improvement.

Ultimately, values reflect the personality of the organization, and are an important component of the organization’s culture – part of the foundational perspective we refer to as “Organizational Capacity.” As part of this, well-articulated values can be a powerful way to attract and screen new employees who are compatible with the culture of your organization.

Finally, the assessment of an organization’s strengths and weaknesses may show that the current values of the leadership or workforce are incompatible with what is needed to move forward, seize opportunities, or adapt to change.  In that case, a strategic theme addressing cultural transformation may be called for.  This cultural transformation may be essential to achieve other goals of the organization.

Read more about Values in The Institute Way: Simplify Strategic Planning and Management with the Balanced Scorecard.

The Trouble with “Change Management”

A few years ago I was facilitating a post-merger integration process for an expanding publicly-traded utility company that had bought a smaller, rural utility in order to expand its territory. The parent company had a balanced scorecard, and we created an aligned scorecard for the smaller company. I was given a dedicated, full-time team of six people – a “diagonal slice” of the organization including people from different functions and management levels; a dedicated work space with its own kitchen; and very strong executive sponsorship.  It was an ideal project from that point of view. One day I wanted the group to talk about “Change Management,” and wrote that term up on the white board in our meeting area. Brian was one of the team members, and a former IBEW shop steward who was pretty critical about the way things were run.  As he walked into the room, Brian said, “That’s exactly what we need to do, Dan.  Change the management!” Brian had quite a point there. Too often, “change management” means “managing what employees think, say and do.”  Can we also interpret this term as “changing the way management thinks about change?” When I first learned the term while working with a Big 4 consultancy in the early 90’s, the approach to change management was top-down and essentially manipulative.  Senior management, assisted by our brilliant consultants, developed new systems and re-engineered processes to work more efficiently, and “change management” was a set of techniques designed to get the folks to go along with whatever had been decided. It’s pretty clear that that approach doesn’t work.  Change cannot be “managed” like that.  Hearts and minds are not so easily manipulated. Change can be led however. Effective change leaders don’t “manage” people, they engage them. Engagement begins by creating a vision that is emotionally inspiring to employees, and inviting them to contribute their ideas about what the future should look like, how to get there, and how to measure success.  Participation in the process is intrinsically motivating to people, who enjoy the feeling of “knowing what’s going on” and contributing. The Institute Way provides a detailed approach for building engagement using four inter-related cross-functional teams: The strategic management team – senior leaders who set strategic direction, provide resources and monitor progress. Strategic theme teams –cross-functional groups that flesh out key business strategies, or themes. Communications team – to keep employees and key stakeholders informed Objective owner teams – cross-functional groups that identify measures and initiatives to generate forward momentum

How the Mighty Have Fallen

A few months ago, we got a call from a company asking for help with their balanced scorecard – something that happens every day.  What was surprising was that the company was one that was a former winner of the Balanced Scorecard Hall of Fame, and one that I had worked with years before. A lot had happened in eleven years. All the original architects of the balanced scorecard had left for other organizations.  It was no longer used as a way to evaluate or update strategy.  Having been cascaded down to an individual employee level years before, what they now called “the balanced scorecard” was simply a way to set targets for employees, based on set objectives and measures.  It was run out of the HR department, where the caller was a mid-level manager. These objectives and measures had become decoupled from strategy, and had not been reviewed or evaluated in years.  What had once been a tool for individual employee alignment with corporate goals was now only a way to set annual targets for individuals. And without ongoing alignment, it was perceived that it was Corporate’s way to get the employees to jump higher every year.  HR’s complaint was that only 5% of the employees had responded to the most recent request for their annual targets. No wonder! When I asked the person I was talking with about whether there was a possibility of talking with their strategy function, she was surprised –  “Balanced Scorecard is an HR tool – I didn’t think it had anything to do with strategy!” Sustaining a balanced scorecard takes ongoing leadership engagement, and needs to be the basis for ongoing strategic management conversations NOT a once year report card. Not only management, but all employees benefit from being involved in discussing strategy, identifying objectives, measures, targets and strategic initiatives at the level that they impact, and that impacts them. For more on aligning individual objectives with strategy visit here.

Bringing Innovation Down to Earth

Years ago, I worked for a Big 5 consulting firm and did a lot of strategic planning projects. In one case I remember we facilitated four three-day workshops with the top 25 executives in a government-owned power generation company in Canada. We went through a pretty typical strategy formulation process, talking about strengths and weakness, opportunities and threats, mission, vision, values, on down the line until we developed key performance indicators and an action plan. A big theme in both the vision and the values was Innovation.  We wordsmithed those statements, and moved on.  Everything was going along like clockwork until 3 pm on the very last day of the very last workshop, when one manager raised his hand and said, “You know, after all this talk about vision and values and innovation, I don’t see that we’ve ever really defined what we mean by innovation or talked about how to put it into practice.” And he was right. The way we did strategic planning back then, there was no connecting the dots. Which indicators would tell us if they had become more innovative?  What projects would foster innovation? That was never discussed. The indicators were all operational measures, and the projects were all concerned with improving power generation processes – nothing about innovation. I went back to the office feeling like something was wrong with this picture.  Imagine my delight a few weeks later when I shared this dilemma – with another client – and he told me about balanced scorecard.  I’ve been working with it ever since. With the balanced scorecard, Innovation can be treated as a theme and integrated – top to bottom  – in a way that is measureable and actionable.  To read more about how the balanced scorecard can foster Innovation, see How to Build Innovation Into Your Strategy.
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