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One of the things I find as a consultant is the need to discuss with the client “The presenting problem”, and then to explore, to diagnose to find out what actually is the deeper, underlying problem.  Only when you find and address that, do you have a sustainable solution to a management issue.

A recent client said they wanted a “Modern Balanced Scorecard”.  They had seen my Youtube video, “Strategy Mapping 101” and saw the value of a clear cause and effect model.  This clear cause and effect model was lacking in their first generation scorecards.  They made it clear that this cause and effect relationship and a clear relationship between projects and how they drive change, was at the heart of what they wanted.  They found that their staff were not doing the longer term thinking and planning that the executive wanted.   Having a clear cause and effect model would help them, they said.

A Balanced Scorecard, even a Fourth Generation Strategic Balanced Scorecard, is seen by organisations as a solution to their problem.  The question is, what deeper problem are they actually trying to solve?  What do they want to be different by the end of the project?  They have stated a problem, but in my mind as have not reached the real problem.

I am sure that the problem is not, simply, the ability to think and describe cause and effect relations.  Yes, developing a clear systematic cause and effect model, can be a challenge. However, I am sure that these executives are smart, experienced managers with a good knowledge of how strategy planning and alignment works.  (That was in fact the case).  This is not rocket science.  Sure there is a discipline, to doing this and some techniques, but they are not complicated.  (Feel free to read and discover many techniques on my website).  Learning to do cause and effect systematically, as you do in a third generation strategy map, is relatively straight forward.

I was sure describing cause and effect was not their underlying problem.  It was only a deeper symptom.  So, what, in this case, is their deeper underlying problem?

The real question for me: “So what really stops you doing that today?”

I wanted to know what the underlying reason was and why they were not able to do that.  Why did I need to know that?  Because that is where the real consultancy intervention lies: the one with sustainable results.  The consultancy problem is not in teaching them how to do cause and effect, scorecards, strategy maps or any of the technical components.  That is simple, and easy (and I had already partly achieved that with the YouTube video).  If you like, you can find most of this teaching material on my website and in my books.  However, as you realise, the material will only help so far.

It was certainly not going to be enough to make a sustainable difference for them.  Ignoring the deeper issue, and only concentrating on the tools and techniques, would be to provide unsustainable consulting.  (Unfortunately, many consultants do offer that service).

What is the real management challenge that this organisation is facing?

With this client, the real management challenge (and the true consulting challenge) lay in:

  1. Helping the organisation to uncover and recognise the cultural, behavioural and organisational blockers.   Getting them to a place where they accepted the source of their issues.
  2. Agreeing with them how that cultural and behavioural change will be brought about and sustained.
  3. Helping them to unblock the cultural, behavioural and organisational blockers that stopped them doing what they knew were sensible things to do.  Helping them to put in place a new set of beliefs and learnt behaviours, that will sustain the new way of working.

In an organisation there are very often deeply embedded cultural and social pressures that stop things happening.  People have learnt behaviours and ways of working.  Sometimes the management systems we have designed or operate, stop things happening.

The real management challenge: what is the culture and behavioural change project that sits behind the presenting issue?  (In fact, many organisational issues should be treated as a behavioural change project yet we often forget this.  Here is how you can learn more.)

Let me illustrate the deeper behavioural issues, by developing this example.

Why don’t they have a longer term focus?

Several years ago I came across a Chief Executive who wanted their middle managers to take a longer term view of their strategy: to think 3-5 years out rather than just one year.  He believed that they were too focused on today and this year to really invest and make decisions for the future.

I must admit I was surprised by this.  Most middle managers are quite good at looking longer term.  It turned out that the middle managers were perfectly good at doing long-term thinking and planning.  In fact these ‘middle managers’ were seasoned executives who knew their markets, understood their industries and wanted to invest for the longer term.  They had a long-term horizon, cared about it and were trying to make long-term decisions.

With a bit more investigation it became clear, there were three, much deeper, reasons that stopped long term thinking becoming action.

Reason 1: Please think long-term: but deliver this year’s results….

The first block was that the management systems were focused on delivering results, this year.  In particular the financial systems and accounting objectives were “deliver your numbers today”.  In fact it was more subtle than that.  It was “deliver your numbers today, so that you earn the right to make longer term investments”.

That ‘earn the right’ approach is quite reasonable.

Reason 2: You think long-term, but we will decide!

However alongside a decision making process that mandated longer term decisions all went upstairs, (Yes really!), meant that even if they wanted to invest longer term, it was a difficult and painful process that was often blocked or discouraged.

Reason 3: I might say that, but this is what I want done: Desired strategy vs Strategy in deed and action

The ultimate reason was a clash between the desired strategy as stated in words; and the actual strategy in deed and action.

Yes there was a desire to do long term thinking.  There was a frustration that longer term thinking and planning was not being done.  Even though teams would spend a long time working on the longer term thinking and planning, when it came down to it, the longer term initiatives were frequently turned down. In the end some of the planned long term investments were cut back by the desire to achieve this year’s budgets, despite the impact on investments and ultimate returns.  In other cases there were various reasons.  The problem is that the managers started to learn that long term thinking, the hurdles or approval and investing time in the pursuit of longer term initiatives, was fruitless.  They would return to strategy by aspiration, hope and financial control.

I have seen this situation in a number of organisation. I have seen it in Manufacturing.  I have seen it in Financial services.  I saw it happen in a City Council many years ago, where the Executive (led by finance) ultimately sent a clear message about what mattered (cut costs today) and completely demoralised the forward looking team strategy we were working with.

At some point there is appears to be a contradiction, a decision between only two possible solutions:  Do we accept a drop in financial results because we genuinely believe that we can invest for the future and this will be the right thing to do?  Or do we take a hit to fund long term investments?  Of course this is not (always) a contradiction.

What behaviour was being learnt by the long term thinkers?

Over time, the message that middle management received was very clear:

  1. We like you to think long term , but ultimately, what matters more is hitting the annual targets and budgets. (Anyone who has been involved with NASDAQ listed companies with quarterly reporting will know exactly what I mean).
  2. We (upstairs) will have ultimate decision power over the longer term decisions.  In other words, idea generation is delegated, but not decision taking.

The managers had been trained NOT to do Long term planning

I want to make it absolutely clear what I am saying here.

Despite the fact that the Executive asked for and expected long term thinking and planning, the managers had been discouraged from doing long term planning.  They had been positively discouraged, put off, and disenfranchised, over the years, by the behaviour of the Executive.  In effect they had been trained, over time, NOT to do long term planning.

As a result, they had learnt a new behaviour: a behaviour that was unintentional and undesired.  They had learnt that doing and submitting long term plans through the Executive’s system was a waste of their time and energy. Over time this learnt behaviour had become deeply embedded.  It was a what we at Excitant refer to as a ‘DELB’ (A Deeply Embedded Learnt Behaviour)

What was really happening?

As a result of this learnt behaviour, they took one of two options:

  1. They either gave up and concentrated on operational issues; or
  2. They found other ways to do longer term thinking and investments, without the Executive getting so involved.

In fact, most, being responsible sensible executives, took the latter option.

Ultimately, there was long term thinking (and there truly was).

The managers with long term views found their own solution:  Find a way to get around the politics and implications of making (or not making) long term decisions. However, the adopted and learnt behaviour of the managers was “Keep it under the radar and find ways to fund it by hiding it in the budgets”.

Obviously working ‘under the radar’ is neither ideal nor optimal.  Managing such ‘political solutions’ are often much more time-consuming and energy sapping than working in a more facultative and trusting environment.  It can work, but it works, poorly and is inefficient.   It might also lead to undesired long term investments and solutions.

How do you change the culture of planning as well as the actions?

What is required is a clear model of behavioural change, embedded in a clear programme of change.   One that works alongside the implementation of the longer term planning approach.  So, the solution for this client was in four main parts:

  1. To ensure there is a realisation that the deeper change is necessary:
    • Make sure the Executive realised what was going on: unintentionally encouraged, or discouraged by them.  Obviously this involved a certain amount of tact and diplomacy.
    • Make the case for change:  The emotional and rational case for a new way of working: The case for the pain of making the change, being less that the pain of staying as they are.
  2. The more technical part:
    • Help them appreciate that the solution is a social tool, as much as a technical tool, that supports a wider decision-making process.
    • Help them develop their balanced scorecard with an effective cause and effect model build into their strategy maps, that reflected their strategy and allowed them to describe how their strategy and long term goals would be achieved.
    • Ensure that such skills were embedded into the organisation.
    • Many implementations would stop here.  However, this would not be a persistent, sustainable solution, without parts 3 and 4….
  3. To demonstrate the Executive are serious about change:
    • The Executive being explicit about giving their teams permission to think and act longer term.
    • To demonstrate that they were serious about longer term investments.  To prove they wanted a different pattern of behaviour.
  4. To embed and learn the new behaviour:
    • Helping the Managers to find ways to better present their longer term investment ideas.  However, this would only work if they believed that the climate had changed and they had permission to think and act with a much longer term horizon.
    • The Executive have to demonstrate that they are serious about long term planning.  The managers had to believe the executive were serious.
    • There had to be a persistent set of signals, over time, that a change of attitude towards longer term plans, was indeed happening.
    • This is to embed the new learnt behaviour.

This is a much more sophisticated model of change than merely, “Introduce a balanced scorecard”, “Learn how to do cause and effect” or “Encourage longer term thinking and planning”.

Treating changes to strategy & planning as a behavioural change project

The approach here is to treat the implementation of a change to the strategy & planning system, as a requiring a necessary change in the beliefs, behaviours and culture of those that implement it.  A behavioural and cultural change that requires a more sophisticated change programme, that is commonly used in such circumstances.

There is a clear and explicit model of change involved: in this case about the managers discovering they have permission to change, and ultimately learning new behaviours and ways of working.

However, the managers are only part of the issue: The executive team have to realise their part in holding the hose pipe and unintentionally discouraging  longer term planning.


The culture of performance: changing deeply embedded learnt behaviours.

It does highlight the need to address the deeper thinking and the culture of performance in an organisation.

By culture of performance I am talking about the environment that we create, deliberately, accidentally or as a result of the unintended consequences of what we have elsewhere.