Bird Dogging Strategy

hunting dog -man hunter and curly coated retriever isolated on white backgroundWhen I was growing up, my dad always had a bird dog. When the dogs were little, Dad would work with them, fine-tuning their natural instincts until all he had to do was send them off in the right direction and let them follow their sense of sight, smell, their inner compass and quick reflexes to flush out the best opportunities (which in this case was probably a covey of quail).

Oh, if organizations could be so nimble when it comes to strategy. Well actually, they can be, but most aren’t. Somehow, far too many organizations have connected strategy with such rigidly quantifiable plans that they rarely consider, much less capitalize on, unexpected opportunities that maybe rustling around in the grass right next to them. Think about it . . . is it really realistic to know, in specific detail, what you should be doing three years down the road?

Let me be clear, I think a solid strategy is critical for organizational success, however I believe a strategic framework that provides direction, rather than a highly detailed strategic plan that dictates specific action, is much more conducive to optimizing impact in an ever-changing environment. What exactly does that mean? For example, a strategic framework might reflect the goal of collaborating with another organization or organizations related to integrated health, or developing new community-based programming, or geographic expansion, or revenue growth. All of these provide a direction, and you can measure whether you accomplished these things, but they also encourage on-going scanning of the environment regarding the best opportunities in these strategic directions.

I’m not alone in my skepticism related to “traditional” strategic planning. In his article “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2014), Roger Martin contends that developing a detailed plan maybe a great way to cope with fear of the unknown, but it’s a terrible way to make strategy. Discomfort and the unknown, and I would add nimbleness and instinct are part of the strategic process. In other words, sometimes on the journey to an intended goal, you end up following an entirely different path than you might have intended . . . and you’ll only find that path if you have the flexibility to follow an unexpected trail or two along the way.

Which brings me back to Dad’s bird dog. As the “governing body” of the enterprise, Dad made sure the dog didn’t get too far afield, but he also encouraged the pup to sniff out possibilities before focusing in on point. The process wasn’t always neat and tidy, but it certainly was effective . . .

… Maybe more of us should consider bird-dogging strategy.

It’s Not What You Know . . .


Image from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod

. . . It’s what you do with what you know! I’m not sure who said this, but I think the graphic above by cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captures the concept perfectly. In my experience, leadership, innovation and ultimately, organizational success, is a result of seeing connections where others may not. That is why I encourage my staff to read widely outside our field, and to add the wisdom of their own unique experiences to the discussion of how to carry out our mission and ministry.

There have been a number of times where something I read in Fast Company, totally unrelated to human services, spurred an idea for how to extend our mission reach . . . or an article in Harvard Business Review caused me to look at a situation differently. I’ve had fiction books I was reading for pleasure spark an idea related to some work issue I had been grappling with, and walks through nature open my eyes to new connections. And if my entire leadership team is doing the same, we have exponentially expanded our ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas in new and powerful ways. Think about it, if the only place you are getting information is from within your industry, from people who basically have the same perspective and professional experience you do, how much harder is it going to be to see things with new eyes and find an innovative solution?

Consciously seeking ways to “connect the dots” is a skill we need to teach our staff as well. We provide thousands of employee training hours each year. In effect, we invest a lot into filling our people with dots . . . and yet if we stop there, we have wasted our investment. We also have to give them intentional experiences that encourage them to find the connection points between the informational nuggets they have gained. We need to give our staff the latitude to find that aha moment that can help them tackle a specific situation, or maybe inform the entire way we do something. Giving a staff member latitude is not the same as tossing them into the wind. There need to be parameters, but supervisors also need to have a tolerance level to allow staff to bring ideas together in a new way that, in our case, might help a child when nothing else has.

I know a number of people who are incredibly smart, and yet if they do nothing more than accumulate disparate facts … if they don’t make the leap to connect the dots … they’ll make a great team member in a trivia contest, but may not be the best person to give your organization an innovative edge. What you know is a start, but what you do with it makes all the difference.

It’s time to make a difference.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

ButtonIf we are honest with ourselves, we all have buttons . . . those things that might not seem like a big deal to other people, but which drive us crazy. Maybe someone interrupting others in a conversation pushes your buttons, or people who focus on the negative even in the best of situations. For me, it’s people who are chronically late. I’m not talking about a one-time unique circumstance (after all, life happens), I’m talking about those people who consistently think a deadline is a guideline, or that the start time of a meeting is a general target. In my book, persistent tardiness is rude and, especially in a work setting, missed deadlines are unprofessional. Now I realize our culture has gotten much more lax about such things . . . so call me a rebel, I believe punctuality is important.

The funny thing is, we have a tendency to try to hide our buttons, rather that letting those who work with us know what they are in advance. I don’t know, maybe people have this illusion that by the time you get to position of leadership you should be “button free.” Reality check — if there is someone out there who is immune to having buttons, I have yet to meet them. But buttons don’t need to be seen as a major character flaw to be hidden (provided you don’t have 47 of them, or they cause you to treat others badly), but rather as a part of your unique make-up just like your gifts and graces. If fact, trying to hide your buttons can have a negative impact for everyone involved. Think about it . . . you will likely get aggravated with those who have, perhaps unwittingly, repeatedly pushed your buttons, and they may be totally unaware they were doing something that bothered you.

How much better is it for those who work with me to know in advance that I’m a stickler for deadlines than to strain our relationship just because they don’t place the same value on timeliness that I do? Likewise, I will do things out of respect for my colleagues “quirks” not necessarily because those things are important to me, but because it makes working with them go much more smoothly.

Have you taken the time to learn the buttons of those you work with most closely? If not, you may be doing something that is silently driving them crazy. And while any single “button push” may not seem like a big deal, the cumulative affect can have a significant impact on your working relationship, and ultimately your organization’s success.

Being sensitive to people’s buttons may seem like a little thing that you don’t have time for, but the most effective leaders realize that it’s the little things that can have the greatest impact on undermining or energizing your efforts — buttons and all!