Seven Disciplines of Strategic Thinking – Act Slowly/Serve Others

February 5, 2009

Today I am taking a brief look at the third and fourth disciplines in my book, ‘act slowly’ and ‘serve others’. I have to smile at what I have written because it seems for the last three weeks I have been rushing around like a lunatic trying to make things happen quickly. The result has been a crushing sense of being burdened by life and of having no personal space. Luckily heavy snow today has interrupted my pattern and I was able to take a long walk in the woods with my family (including our young puppy), capture some fantastic snowy photographs of the fabulous Wiltshire countryside and generally recalibrate. That has allowed me to cancel several long and tiresome meetings which I should not be attending in the first place. Thank goodness for wisdom brought about by external circumstances!

Act Slowly

Of all the concepts in The Strategic Mind the idea of taking things more slowly is perhaps the least intuitive. All around us is the clamour to achieve more, to be more efficient in the time we have, to fit more things into our life. The idea that we should slow down and do less seems to be completely at odds with our modern world. Yet, it is one of the most important concepts in the book, for the alternative is to slip further into the collective madness that is so destructive to our world. We would be wise to concentrate less on more efficient approaches to doing things and more on more effective ways of achieving our aims and objectives, in other words, finding the right solution in first place. Ironically, the result of our preoccupation with time efficiency is that we often embark on projects that have destructive side effects at a systemic level, which we have to cycle back and deal with later. Short term decision making without due foresight translates into long term systemic problems.

A colleague recently told me of a classic case of unanticipated consequences. Over the past five years ‘unsafe’ gravestones have increasingly become the target of health and safety officials with many thousands being levelled to prevent possible accidents. If done both sensibly and sensitively no one would argue that it is a bad thing per se – particularly if action prevents a tragic accident in the future. However, as we know, grass grows very rapidly in early spring each year and requires constant attention. In the case of my colleague’s local church, the council has requested that locals do not cut the grass (presumably another health and safety initiative) but leave it to council employees. This is done on a periodic basis except when the allotted time coincides with inclement weather. The result is knee high grass obscuring the levelled gravestones and causing yet another health and safety problem!

Toyota provides an interesting example of an organisation which explicitly recognises the principle of ‘act slowly’. ‘The Toyota Way’ (the philosophy that summarises the managerial values and business methods that have given the company a competitive advantage over the years based on the core principle of making a unique contribution to society) includes:

Principle 4 – Level out the workload. Work like a tortoise not the hare.

Principle 5 – Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right first time.

Principle 13 – Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.

The key is to make sure that we build on solid foundations because endeavours based on solid ground tend to last. Certainly, tortoises sometimes get left behind (there are many organisations which react slowly because they are simply incapable of making difficult decisions). However, paradoxically, the ability to be flexible and adaptable (and make decisions quickly when necessary) comes from the time spent upfront making sure we know who we are, what we want and what we stand for (either as individuals or within an organisational context). It is interesting to reflect upon the fact that the seeds spend much of their early life entirely underground in the darkness simply getting ready for the right time and conditions to shoot for the sun.

Serve Others

No one and no thing exists in isolation; we are all in relationship with everything else. Serving others moves us from a position of pushing our ‘stuff’ out towards others to aligning ourselves to meeting the needs of the greater whole, thus acknowledging the web of life and tapping into the synchronicity that lies within. This fundamental principle lies at the heart of holistic thinking; if we cannot see ourselves in relationship but fall prey to the ‘illusion of independence’ we will always be limited to a partial understanding of the whole.

This principle has very practical implications. Thomas Jones and W. Earl Sasser published a landmark article in the Harvard Business Review in 1995 that suggested that conventional ways of interpreting customer satisfaction were simplistic and encouraged erroneous conclusions. The authors found that loyalty is not related to satisfaction in simple linear terms and that it takes high levels of emotional involvement from customers before loyalty actually kicks in. In fact, if we plot the build up of loyalty in relation to customer satisfaction on a graph, we see that it takes the form of a curve rather than a straight line. In other words, the relationship is much more complex than the simplistic linear thinking that underlies most customer surveys and questionnaires. Initially, customer satisfaction increases steadily without a corresponding increase in loyalty and it takes very high levels of satisfaction before loyalty kicks in.

In practical terms, this means that we need to do exceptional things or do things exceptionally well to win real customer loyalty. And to do things at this level requires very strong relationships with customers/clients, not simply doing things well at an operational/process level of execution. At the very least this means being able to see from the customer’s perspective (a living discipline that is renewed each day) but at its most powerful level it is expressed as the acknowledgement of a shared journey, often marked by an obsession about what the company/endeavor is all about (expressed in products, customer service or both). Here are a few well-know examples:

Apple is obsessive about sleek product design and simple and effective functionality.

Pizza Express and Pret a Manger (two UK based retailers) are obsessive about consistent customer standards, demonstrated by an attention to detail in all aspects of the retail proposition; still sadly uncommon in an industry where standards frequently vary widely from location to location.

Innocent, a UK producer of very high quality natural fruit juices, is obsessive about the quality of its natural ingredients in an industry that has often compromised quality to reduce costs, ensure longer shelf life or simply meet the vagaries of fashion.

Traditionally, we are accustomed to a distinction being made between a ‘product oriented’ company and a ‘customer oriented’ one. What these examples demonstrate is that it is the deeper connection made with customers that really matters, often this sense of a shared journey. Whether this is expressed in customer or product terms is not, in itself, important, what is critical is that all these companies share an obsession about serving customer needs and about making a real difference. And this can be expressed in anything we do, whether it is making first class sandwiches or working towards sustainable fishing policies. As Bono put it in an interview with Time Magazine in March 2007, ‘We discover who we are in service to one another, not the self … Our humanity is diminished when we have no mission bigger than ourselves.’

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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