Friday, December 21, 2007

Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

David Maister, whose previous books on managing professional firms have become must reading in many circles, has produced another winner with Strategy and the Fat Smoker.

The subtitle of the book is Doing What's Obvious But Not Easy and that sums up Maister's point. We often know the right thing, but then refrain from doing it. Maister explores the reasons why and in so doing reveals, like most great teachers, things you might have suspected but not acknowledged. Among his observations are:

If strategic rules are justified only in terms of outcomes ("Treating employees well gets us more money"), the diet will always be seen as a punishment on the way to an uncertain and possibly unattainable reward. Accordingly, it will always be resented.

[When I read the above I recalled diversity programs that tout diversity as a business advantage. Those pronouncements have always made me wonder what the firms would do if diversity was not an advantage.]

If a number of top people have plainly not signed up for the journey or are clearly not true believers, no number of systems or amount of inspired speechmaking will transport the organization there.

[In other words, if they don't get with the program, get rid of them. Don't work around them. Maister notes that you may be able to make individual but not team progress if you keep them around.]

Any business that tries to deliver all four virtues of quality, cost, variety, and speed is doomed to failure.

[You can't have it all and your message will be garbled if you try to do so.]

As companies keep discovering to their detriment, it is certain business decay if you try to please all market segments. The broader the group of clients to which you appeal, or the wider the range of services you try to provide, the less customized your operation can be to each segment within that group.

[ You have to watch for "mission creep." One client requests this and another requests that and before too long you're lost, cold, and listening to strange noises in a very dark forest.]

Maister advocates the adoption of a larger purpose, a sense of meaning, that will go beyond the standard emphasis on pay. He analyzes the usual barriers to implementation, such as problems with systems, attitude, knowledge, and skills and proposes the use of scorecards to measure peformance, coaching as a form of monitoring and follow-up on progress, tools in place before training starts, training, and rewards and recognition when people achieve.

Big shrug. You've heard that all before.

But Maister is not naive. He knows that many companies reward the short-term and transactional and that customers and employees can also resist looking at the bigger picture. He is also aware that while many managers are rigid when considering direction and loose and open when it comes to execution, those tendencies should actually be reversed.

His underlying message is a challenge which I'll ungraciously word as "Are you serious about good management or do you simply want to go through the motions?"

If you're serious, Maister's general prescription for success is a focus on passion (have lots), people (care for and develop the individual), and principles (get and stick to them). He regards none of those as negotiable. He is a fan of the U.S. Marine Corps and its non-nonsense, seriously crafted, culture that leaves little question as to how Marines are expected to behave. "Give people a goal, and little will be accomplished," he observes. "Leave it to them to find self-discipline, and most will fail to sustain high intensity. But place them in an environment where they are well coached, with colleagues equally turned on, and - contrary to what cynics might believe - the overwhelming majority of people of all backgrounds and educational levels will respond with enthusiasm and commitment."

The book's journey to understand the gaps between good intentions and performance is not the equivalent of a banana milk shake diet. There are no quick fixes. Some teams, given their current make-up, can't be repaired. Maister is advocating rules, commitment, and a lot of hard work. He's telling us to get off of the couch.

I highly recommend reading and re-reading David Maister's thought-provoking book. His solutions may appear to be simple and yet for most groups they will be damned hard.

They have only one advantage: They work.

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