A few months back, I remember having a good chuckle while watching a Jon Stewart parody on the Republican candidate field. The monologue poked fun at the media’s tendency, during its seemingly relentless coverage of the leading candidate on that day, to completely shift direction the moment a new contender entered the picture.In this case, Bachman was the leader du jour, the media was the dog in the Pixar movie “Up”, and the part of the squirrel was played by none other than Rick Perry, who these days appears to be succeeding only at distracting himself.
“Squirrel moments” happen all around us, and with greater frequency than we’d care to admit. As flawed human beings, it’s easy for us to get sidetracked from what we should be doing, by some urgent new distraction that seems terribly critical in the moment. Yet most of us eventually manage to refocus, once we become aware (through our own cognitive skills or because a friend or colleague points it out to us) of how badly the squirrel moment has driven us off-course. Typically it is the speed with which we are able to re-calibrate ourselves that ultimately determines the degree of damage, if any, that is caused by the distraction.
But for organizations, the challenge of refocusing after a significant distraction is far greater. Unlike individual distractions, those in organizations often require refocusing entire workgroups, business units, and processes that may have strayed far from the core focus and strategies of the business. It’s a bit like comparing a fighter jet to a large commercial airliner. While both are capable of course correction, larger aircraft don’t react “on a dime” and require a lot more time and space to maneuver. The magnitude of the corporate distraction, the breadth of areas it touches, and the duration of the distraction, are just a few of the variables that determine the organization’s ability to react and readjust quickly.
Sure, one might argue, “bad things happen to good companies”, and in these and a myriad of other examples from 2011 there is certainly some truth to that. Sometimes, these blunders cannot always be attributed to bad strategies or failure to stick with a good one. Sometimes, it’s the tactical decisions that are “far removed” from the C-suite and its strategic decision making. Sometimes these decisions, as we saw above, are undertaken because of a financial necessity that in the short term might trump a marketing strategy.
But, by the same token, those seemingly small disconnects may, in fact, be symptomatic of the problem itself. While management may not be able to control ALL of the drivers that lead to negative consequences, effective development and MANAGEMENT of strategy can not only limit the damage caused by veering off course, but can play a very important role in course correction after the fact. For many companies the words “MANAGEMENT” and “STRATEGY” connote different, and often conflicting, disciplines. But for those successful at avoiding and responding to distractions, these are highly related and often inseparable competencies.
So, how can you ensure that corporate distractions are kept to a minimum, and effectively refocus and re-center the business when they invariably do occur?
2011 wasn’t the first time we’ve seen these types of blunders. And it most certainly won’t be the last.
We all remember the Tylenol scare of many years ago. Drug companies like J&J, who exist largely at the mercy of safety protocols and regulations, can easily be crushed by such events. But J&J’s ability to identify and react to the crisis with agility prevented what could have been an historic business failure. Their “distraction,” which arguably could have been anticipated, was kept fairly well contained.
Others weren’t so fortunate. The Exxon-Valdez and BP-Macondo debacles are two great examples of this. Safety, which should be a core strategic underpinning for any company, but particularly those in this industry, in large measure fell victim to distraction. But, in both cases, it was the lack of a coherent, actionable response strategy that kept business value flowing out of the pipeline/tanker as fast as the oil.
If we have the right blueprint for managing strategy, we can limit the number of distractions, identify and react appropriately when they do occur, and respond with agility and effectiveness to keep adverse consequences to a minimum.
Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience with primary emphasis on Customer Operations in the global energy and utilities sector. Bob has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian Kenneth Swain is a Principal with onVector Consulting Group. Brian has over 25 years of experience in Marketing, Product Management, and Customer Operations. He has managed organizations in highly competitive product environments, and has consulted for numerous companies across the globe. Brian is an alumnus of McKinsey & Company, Bell Laboratories, and Reliant Energy, and is a graduate of Columbia University and the Wharton Business School. He can be contacted at email@example.com.