The Golden Balance

Aristotelian philosophy holds among its tenets the merits of striving for a harmonious middle ground in all things. Many others since the ancients have voiced a similar point of view.

But others, not innate immoderates incapable of seeing an alternative point of view, but practical people thinking about how to get things done in the real world of business, have warned against aiming at analogues to The Golden Mean.

We're warned that failure to be decisive when called for leads to paralysis, that wavering leaders don't get followed and that trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.

More specifically…

Michael Porter of Harvard cautions us against getting strategically "stuck in the middle" as, for example, between premium and value-based positioning.

Geoffrey Moore takes a similar position with regard to the need to choose a business architecture optimized for complex system sales or for sale of high volume standard products.

Treacy and Wiersema argue that we must have the discipline to choose between three fundamental strategic alternatives or fail to become a market leader.

All of these cautionary notes, and the thinking behind them, have important value, and warrant careful consideration in crafting and executing on a company's strategy. I've thought about them often in my own work.

They do however have a certain ring of absolutism to them, and if misapplied, a potentially flawed certainty that elbows aside nuance and collapses multi-dimensional problems into overly simplified models. They can lead to digital thinking in at least one aspect of the world that I believe remains resolutely analog: that of human actors and how they behave in groups and more complex assemblages.

They also can be seen to argue against seeking common ground compromise and against applying different strategies and decision weighting on a situational basis when appropriate.

How do we reconcile these ideas?

I believe that the answer starts with an understanding that the world of business is highly dynamic and dominated by people-to-people interactions.

While it is certainly true that well defined strategies provide a vital sense of direction amidst swirling uncertainty, and that teams respond positively to clear strategy, if they are applied without situational context and an eye to the human factors involved, rigid, bureaucratically applied strategies can backfire, badly.

A customer intimacy strategy can eat up engineering resources and drive costs up when neither can be afforded.

A powerful quality management competency and culture can stifle innovation and entrepreneurial risk taking. (You can Six Sigma yourself into a molasses-like torpor.)

Without experimentation in the alternatives to the current main thrust, it's difficult to know that it might be time to shift strategies.

And so on.

I think that the answer lies in seeking a "Golden Balance" rather than a Golden Mean.

One can all too easily arrive at a "Mean" by failing to decide between alternatives or by blindly splitting the difference between them.

A balance, or more explicitly a dynamic balance (artistic license yields "Golden Balance"), is reached by:

Understanding both the long term imperatives of coherent strategy and cultural integrity along with the immediate and changing realities of current context, then…

… Applying solid judgement as to how to make "this" decision (as opposed to a generic decision) and…

… By explaining to your team how and why you reached that call, this time.

The course you steer will thus occasionally tack left and right of your committed strategic direction, but stay true to it over the long term — until you decide to change it to a new heading, explicitly. And your team will more likely see your moves as nimble and flexible, not indecisive or confusing. (Lose them… their trust in your leadership, and you're toast.)

Note the prominent role of "solid judgement" in the second sentence? Can't really teach that, except by encouraging you to learn through each experience and to be open to the inputs of others. There are however some ideas that can help you toward achievement of your Golden Balance:

IStock_000005135221Small 1. Have a clear and committed strategy, maintain value and cultural integrity… but be aware of how strengths can become weaknesses if not applied with judgement and situational awareness.

2. Be confident enough in your strategic directions and tactical decisions to maintain heading and act decisively, but be humble enough to know that you just could be wrong. Don't turn off those who could help you see a better way forward by ignoring their thoughts.

3. Encourage the occasional experiment outside of your strategic trajectory, but be clear that's what you're doing.

4. Consider an organization design featuring a partnership team at top. In my experience, with the right partners and chemistry, this yields rich dividends: complementary skill sets, checks and balances, avoidance of ego-driven mistakes… even more fun when the wins come and a cushioning of disappointment when not. The give and take between partners encourages the striking of the kind of dynamic balance I'm recommending here.

5. Always be aware of the human factors in a situation. It's not just a matter of making the (abstract) "right" decision, but of making sure that your team is behind you and will execute.

6. Finally, make sure that your team is focused on the long term results you are trying to achieve. They should be placed on a higher ground than the current strategies and tactics you've set in their pursuit. The later will, and should be subject to, change as circumstances do. The former, less often if chosen carefully. The worst behavior is for teams to blindly act because "that's they way we do it here," based on years of repetition turned into inertia.

Posted in Business, People, Strategy.

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