Categories
leadership Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

Simplicity in words

My last post approached simplicity from a perspective of painting. This week, the Wednesday Whimsey looks at another form of brevity—of word counts. It is prompted by a passage that I recall from a New York Times article:

assorted vegetable lot

The Lord’s Prayer contains 56 words, the 23rd Psalm 118 words, the Gettysburg Address 226 words and the Ten Commandments 297 words, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture directive on pricing cabbage weighs in at 15,629 words.

Few would argue that the last document cited is more elegant than the first four. So, what makes the difference? It is actually not length. It is clarity of thought. The Gettysburg Address, for example, was written to give solace and meaning to deaths on both sides of the Civil War. Would we feel the same empathy for all the fallen soldiers if this were a one-hour eulogy with great detail on the deceased?

Note that these documents are all literal. They use language that lifts our horizons because they speak to what is on the ground just before us. You may well have seen the spoofing done to show what happens when a group wordsmiths that Gettysburg Address. The words become more general, more abstract such that everyone can agree upon them. I see that often. A leadership team meets to improve an organizational strategy by polishing the language in the plan. They can’t agree on just what constitutes excellent action but they all heartily endorse standing for Excellence, whatever it might mean.

As both PowerPoint and wordsmithing move toward higher levels of generalization, they create documents that sound just like others. I have compared presentations on strategy from different organizations in several fields and found them surprisingly interchangeable. They use the same words in the same way. My favorite frequent expression is the hyphenated term ending in “driven”. Organizations are mission-driven, data-driven, result-driven, customer-driven. Sounds great on a slide but what does it mean? Is someone doing the driving? If so, who? And are they on autopilot or following some explicit rules of the road they can share? Or perhaps we are all passengers, voicing our opinion on direction before or even after the car or ship departs.

The short documents the New York Times references are strong because they are literal and intentionally focused. I find that worth pondering. And it is easy for me to do so since I do not particularly like cabbage.

Next week I muse about the differences between a proposal seeking charitable donations and a prospectus seeking investment capital. And how much they can learn from each other.

Categories
innovation leadership

Strategy & Tactics

I was sipping coffee with my friend Bruce late last week. When he works with groups, he has one key question:  What problem are you trying to solve?  On the one hand, I love any focus that brings concentration and intentional thinking to an organization, and problem solving does that.    On the other, I see all the literature on being driven by assets rather than barriers.  

I asked Bruce if he thought problems and opportunities belonged at opposite ends of the same continuum.  He said he did not think so and that problem-solving was strategic while opportunity response was tactical.  That really prompted me to think deeper.

I get his logic.  Problems are long term and durable. We need strategies to solve them.  Opportunities are often fragile and short lived. You must take the tide before it has gone out and see where it takes you. This, for me, elevates the term “tactics.” It also frees me from the bromide observation that “every problem is just an opportunity in disguise”.  This is such a limiting proposition as it suggests beginning with problems.  To find and harness opportunity, I do not need to start with a problem or a strategy. Something looks like it could add value and I jump to try it.   This is innovation, which is a superb method of planned change.   

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As I think about it most methods are tactical.  When I hear organizations proclaim that their strategy is innovation, I typically find little experimentation. They have located trying new things at too high a level. Drop down to the level of what is spontaneous and generate both heat and light.  Who has an idea for a new approach that will outperform a present practice? Good tactics may sometimes precede rather than follow good strategy!