Strategy and Stories Redux

When we want to convey or convince, our first instinct is often ask to “tell a story.” It may be a joke or fable, but the ideas that we want to promote aren’t thrown out there randomly. We try to embed them in a plot and setting that engages the listener. It also brings together the teller and hearer in a way that fishing for a “yes” to an idea never can.

I was reminded of storytelling and strategy by a Jonah Goldberg piece about stories in our political culture. From his open:

There is an enormous amount of whining these days about our ideological debates. This gets the problem wrong. Ideological debates are fought over ideas, but politics is more often about competing stories, or, as the eggheads call them, “narratives.”

This insight — ideas ≠ equal stories — is one of the reasons McKinsey is the dominant strategy consultancy. The firm’s associates are great at sweating the narrative through dozens of drafts, yet they also hang the “footnote” details just out of sight. The details are out of sight of the listener perhaps, but available for the speaker to summon in a second.

I often relay the story of sweating the prep for a strategy presentation for a CEO under the tutelage of a McKinsey alum. Not only did we go through fifteen full drafts, but we carefully positioned our proof points in the appendices. Therefore, when the CEO questioned an assumption — one that underlay a key plot twist — I could then go straight to the idea that supported the assumption. In fact, those ideas were their own little story.

The result? The executive said “now I know why the story goes the way it does…I’m not sure I agree with that premise, but it makes sense now.” This careful layering of narrative and support bounded the problem for us. Now we could focus on refining and selling that plot point, not patching up scattered plot holes.

On the other hand, other consultancies don’t do this nearly as well. It’s either all story and no setting, or all setting and no plot. To tie this back to politics, I can’t say I was surprised that Bain founder Mitt Romney’s platform was a barrage of ideas, with little story to focus their aim.

Big picture = big map (HT @galleman)

Now that I’m somewhat out from under, I’ve caught up with some of the usual suspects on my reading list.  Glen Alleman is timely with another reminder (here) that an integrated master plan is essential.

Program-level plans are as welcome in IT circles as garlic on a Twilight movie set, and I’ve never quite understood why.  As Glen notes elsewhere, you need a map to know where you’re going.  But too many IT folk believe that such “high level” pictures are only needed because their managers as pointy-haired buffoons.  These “detail” men believe that the only valid plan is one derived from detailed task-level plans.

But consider the map metaphor.  How many of us would try to assemble an itinerary from the individual turn instructions?  We wouldn’t, naturally.  We pick where we want to start, how we want to travel (boat, plane, car, or on foot makes a difference), and where we want to end up.  Paper, Google, and program maps get built the same way: you need to know where you’re going to know when to turn (or not).

SAP’s product side is the problem

Dennis Byron here gives the most succinct gloss I’ve seen on the challenge before Hasso:

Hasso Plattner wants to drive a great deal of technological innovation at SAP, and did not believe it could happen under Leo’s leadership, and without Hasso’s very direct involvement…. The product organization is full of conflicting technologies, conflicting interests, and conflicting agendas. Driving change in this kind of climate will be very challenging for Jim [Snabe] and Vishal [Sikka].

Hasso stalks the product halls?

There’s one more challenge: SAP hasn’t been honest about what is working on the product side. BYD folks walked around like the cocks of the walk long after it was clear that BYD was in deep trouble.  And the leadership let them…

Hasso’s right: Leo couldn’t call BS on the product side effectively enough.  From what I can tell, he’s the only one left in SAP who can meld innovation with the market AND is credible and powerful enough to actually do it!

Unfortunately, I can imagine that many on the development time think that they’ve won and happy days are here again.  Hasso’s back and it’s innovation for innovation’s sake at SAP!  What…monetize?  Isn’t that what sales people are for?

Wow, Leo Apotheker’s gone already?

Unbelievable that Leo Apotheker has already fallen on his sword.  There has been tons of chatter about Leo and his demise (Dennis Howlett here, Larry Dignan here, Michael Krigsman here, and the #leogone Twitter feed is here).  Here are a few of my thoughts and questions:

  • Everyone at must be relieved that Hasso is back in charge, morale at SAP has been a mess for a while.  The honesty from Hasso in his press conference was refreshing…the lack thereof is one of the reasons I’m not there.
  • Blaming Business By Design on Leo seems ridiculous…I’ve seen that mentioned a couple of places (here’s Bloomberg).  Didn’t Peter Zencke fall on his sword for this already?  Anyway, absurd.
  • How can anyone have any confidence that giving the development side more power will be fruitful? (see “Blaming Business By Design on Leo seems ridiculous” above)  I agree this represents a shift back to product development.  But what then? 
  • What does the field have left?  Leo supposedly represented the field, but IMO the field has been carrying SAP for a long time.   Will Werner Brandt’s beatings continue until the field’s morale improves?
  • Who else is leaving?  I’m not sure that current leadership gets what Peter Goldmacher states bluntly: “I think SAP is structurally impaired.”  The rot runs much deeper than Leo.

Shiny, happy objects all around

My brother introduced me to the concept of the “shiny object” — the distracting, alluring thing on which the unwary fixate.  Seth Godin uses the concept to get us focused on our goals and milestones.

This post shows [again] why Seth is one of the wise marketing minds.  To the unwary, marketing is a kind of magic that can put a shine on anything or even polish a you know what

Many, of course, only sell that shine.  Seth reminds us to begin with the end in mind if we want it to be more than a veneer.

Why I moved to Mead Johnson — macro positives

As promised, I’d like to outline some of the reasons why I moved to Mead Johnson.   There are several big picture or macro reasons why the move appealed to me:

  • Engagement in standing up an “new” company.  MJN just had an IPO as a carve out of Bristol Myers Squibb.  While I’ve had a bit of experience integrating acquisitions, I’ve not been part of a divestiture.  Ironically, many of the activities are quite similar, especially the process and application rationalization work on the IM side.
  • Mead Johnson’s strategy:  When you look at our vision, it is explicitly a premium strategy – “Our vision is to be the world’s premier pediatric nutrition company. “  There is a real research, quality, and product differentiation between the MJN brands and everyone else.
  • Mead Johnson’s growth prospects:  What surprised me most about MJN was how much growth there is in the pediatric nutrition market.  In particular, there are great prospects globally.  We’re already rolling in China and India is on the horizon.

Interview on PMOs by Michael Krigsman

Last week Michael and I had a great discussion on PMOs — what they are and how they contribute to IT governance and project success.  In particular, the SAP PMOs have a unique role in optimizing the success of the entire SAP ecosystem…otherwise, relations among the stakeholders can devolve into what Michael calls the IT Devil’s Triangle

The post and podcast (player is at the top of the post), are here.  Thanks to Michael for arranging this and for even taking a good photo of me!

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