Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?

Bruce lee

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.”  ~Bruce Lee

Sir Peter Blake was a New Zealand yachtsman who won the Whitbread Round the World Race, the Jules Verne Trophy – setting the fastest time around the world of 74 days 22 hours 17 minutes 22 seconds – and led Team New Zealand to successive victories in the America’s Cup in 1995 and 2000. While the American teams had more money, New Zealand had a singularly effective strategy, the brain-child of Peter Blake.

blackmagicWhen Blake was asked to take over as skipper for Team New Zealand, they weren’t considered much of a real contender, especially with the better financed American “Stars and Stripes”.  As you can imagine, there are a myriad of things that go into preparing a racing yacht for competition, from types of sails, ropes, winches and cranks, electronics, rigging, crew composition and training, and hundreds more.

So with all these enablers and influencers for success, what should the team focus on?  If you say all of them, then you have lost in both time, money and prioritization.  Some are obviously more important than others,  yet all are critical for success.  Like any complicated endeavor, finding and keeping focus on the right things is crucial.

Peter Blake was a practical New Zealander and a veteran of ocean sailing and racing so instead of fancy spread sheets and performance metrics, he focused the team on one single strategic question:  Will it make the boat go faster?

Every decision was evaluated against that one simple, yet holistic and powerful question.

The New Zealand team began to rethink everything they knew about sailing and racing with this one strategy in mind.  Training and team composition changed, equipment size and weight changed, sails changed.  Even the crew comforts were looked at through the lens of “will it make the boat go faster?”

The results, real team spirit, alignment and focus, and back to back America’s Cup wins in 1995 and 2000.

Are You Focused?

Over the years I have worked with many organisations and senior teams as they struggle to implement business strategies. One of my key observations is the fact that most organisations have too many “critical” objectives.  Not only do all these objectives compete for limited funding, but some even compete with each other.  As a result it is easy to evolve a culture of strong silos, each of which believe their objectives are more important than any others.

One popular, but often ill-fated approach to trimming down the number strategic objectives is to engage the senior team in a prioritization process and to separate the requirements from the “desirements”.  This is often attempted by assigning numerical values, say 1 to 5, to each objective.  For example the scale can go from Must Have (= 5) down to Not Now (= 1).

There is a practical flaw in this approach however, and that is without a single point of focus and alignment among the senior team, the exercise quickly turns into a mine against yours argument and the scores are all over the place, necessitating the need for the CEO to play King Solomon.  When this happens, alignment and collective commitment suffers.

Will it make the boat go faster?

It’s not about which department wins, it’s about the whole company winning!

By having a single strategic focus, like “will it make the boat go faster”, all potential wants and desires can be measured against this single, overriding metric.  Thus the discussion moves from mine versus yours into we agree that these few objectives, if properly executed, will deliver on our overriding strategic focus.

As I review some of the most successful turnarounds in corporate history there always seems to be one overarching strategic focus that all initiatives aligned around.  For the turnaround of Continental Airlines in 1993-1994 it was “will it win back the business traveller”?  For the recovery of Three Mile Island Nuclear it was “will it make us safer”?

What is your organisation’s single point of strategic focus? Or do you suffer from “initiative overload”?

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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