Strategic Planning – Can We Handle the Truth?

“You can’t handle the truth!”

–     Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men” (1992)

We’re coming up on that time of year.  Budgets.  Plans.  Strategic plans.  (Reminds me of another, lighter-hearted military movie…”aaarrrrrrrrrmy training, SIR!”)

I’ve been honored to receive an invitation to speak to the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Chamber members this week — and the topic is strategic planning.

Strategic planning should be a little different for every company, and it can be a lot different for an organization like a Chamber of Commerce, or a not-for-profit — any organization that serves multiple constituencies, no matter how common their goals might be.

We’ll spend today, tomorrow and Wednesday on strategic planning fundamentals, then.

First:  Strategic plans must be based in truth, be built from the market-in and executed from the inside-out.

In the movie, Nicholson’s character famously spits that Tom Cruises’s character, Danny Caffey, “can’t handle the truth.”  Can we, in our organizations, focus on and handle the truth?

You might be wondering, “Truth?  Aren’t our plans supposed to be aspirational?  Shouldn’t our plans focus on what we want to become?”  Of course they are and of course they should.  It’s just that our aspirations can’t be the starting point.  I recently went from 238 pounds to 199.  I could picture myself at 199.  I knew how much better I’d feel at 199.  I knew exactly how I was going to get to 199.  The truth was, though, I weighed 238.  That is where my plan had to begin.

Once we’ve started with our truth-based reality (from the market’s perspective), we first have to look at what we want to become from a market perspective.  Does the market need ______?  Does the market want _______?  Where, in an evolving market, does our “wanna be” fit?  Who’s vested in getting us there, and who wants nothing more than for us to fail?  With a market-based perspective (and those aren’t the only questions we ask in establishing it…), we can then move to execution — the tactical elements of our strategic plan.  (More on that tomorrow…)

Pictures help us learn.  I like to picture a strategic plan as a freeway.  Traffic can flow easily and quickly on a freeway, and we’ve got our app that shows us the quickest route to our destination.  Still, mishaps occur.  Traffic jams, sometimes without explanation.  So, we need to know where the exits are.  Where can we consider an alternate route?  How will we determine if it’s better, or just easier?

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the considerations for building a strategic plan, and a foundation for integrating them to our operating model.

Until then, make it an incredible day.  Make a difference for someone who’s not expecting it.

Winning, Losing and Coaching

It’s football season, which calls for the requisite sports analogy tied to our roles as Leaders / Difference Makers for our teams.  Here are three examples of perspective from three colorful coaches…

“Oh, we played like about three tons of buzzard puke this afternoon.”

–     William Taylor “Spike” Dykes (1938 – 2017), American football coach

Losing stinks.  Yet, no one wins all the time.  As coaches, we want our teams to learn in every practice and game, in every meeting and presentation.  We want to #getbettereveryday.  Sometimes, that calls for abject candor.  No one doubts what Coach Dykes thought of his team’s performance on this day.  Twelve-step programs talk about admitting / acknowledging the problem as the first, most critical step in recovery.  When we’re off our game, let’s don’t try to convince ourselves that we were awesome.  Let’s acknowledge our suckitude, and grow from it.

“Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon.”

–     John Madden (b. 1936), American football coach and expert TV commentator

Winning more frequently than losing is about process. Getting the wagon loaded correctly with the right payload will lead us to success.  There are multiple ways to move a wagon, but if it ain’t loaded, it won’t matter where we get it headed.

I’m an Iowa Hawkeye fan all the way through my DNA. No program’s process is more firmly engrained than Kirk Ferentz’s — and no program gets better results from second-tier recruiting profiles than Iowa.  Iowa State, the perennial “little brother across the state,” has emerged as a legitimate contender, largely because their coach, Matt Campbell, has a process, and is fanatically committed to it.  “Fall in love with the process and the process will love you back,” he says.

Tomorrow is Iowa v Iowa State, the Cy-Hawk matchup that is, around here, like the Yankees / Red Sox, Celtics / Lakers and Packers / Bears all rolled in to one.

Whichever team focused on loading the wagon better will win, and because both coaches “get it,” both wagons will likely be well-loaded.

Reporter:  “Coach, what can you say about your team’s execution today?”

Coach:  “I’m in favor of it!”

–     Post-game with John McKay (1923 – 2001), American football coach and folk legend

It’s not rocket surgery.  We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously when we win, and we shouldn’t consider ourselves losers when we come up short.  Remember, unless we’re a surgeon, air-traffic controller or in the military, no one dies and no one loses a limb when we make mistakes.  Let’s poke fun at ourselves, pull some laughter out of good days and bad – and #getbettereveryday.

Enjoy your weekend.

Go, Hawks!





To One With A Hammer…

“To one with a hammer, every problem can look like a nail.”

–     paraphrase from Abraham Maslow’s “Psychology of Science” (1966)

It’s known as “the law of the instrument,” a “cognitive bias that leads to an over-reliance on a familiar tool.”  It can be most evident in business as denial, or an unwillingness to learn new approaches.

Why?  It really is easier if we don’t have to carry too many tools.  My grandpa Stark (yes, I come from House Stark!  And I still have my head!) carried a ball-peen hammer that still sits on the corner of my desk.  It’s gotta be 110 years old.  The amazing thing about “Starky” was that he could tap with that hammer on danged near anything — and fix it.

35 years ago, sales trainers taught “closing skills,” and those skills were the hammer for a couple generations.  Today, they’re the ball-peen hammer we’ve carried for years, or the 9-pound hammer that we want to swing at an objection.

35 years later, that’s a flawed strategy.

So, I still keep Starky’s ball-peen on my desk as a reminder of the man, but also as a reminder that today, more than ever, there are more tools available to us — and that most of our problems are not nails.

Research, solid questioning skills, understanding the prospect of clients’ business.  Curiosity, empathy, creativity.  These are the tools today that make “closing” over-rated.  If we use these tools appropriately, we won’t need to hammer, or even tap too hard to get the outcome that’s best for everyone in the conversation.

Before we grab a tool, let’s commit to three fundamental behaviors that will put us in a position to be better craftsmen, regardless of the tool we use:

  1. Commit to understanding what our challenge really is, at its core, at its cause.  Let’s commit to knowing why!
  2. Commit to determining whether a current tool will do the job, and whether we need to learn a new way to use that tool.
  3. Commit to actively considering getting a new tool or learning a new skill.  Consider asking for help from some other “master craftsperson” who might have a different approach, tool or skill.

Instead of always being a person with a hammer, let’s make sure we have a complete set of tools, skills and partners to bring the best solution to bear when we need it most.


Take Another Step

“Then the lightning flashed the thunder crashed and suddenly
It began to rain and everybody ran
Then the sky went black as midnight and you couldn’t see
Paralyzed by what you just can’t understand
And now here you are, you’re afraid to move
You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what to do
Take another step, take another step
When the road ahead is dark
And you don’t know where to go…”
          –     Lyric from “Take Another Step” by Steven Curtis Chapman
Yes, Chapman is a Christian artist and there’s a clear Faith connection to the song.
But if that ain’t how you roll, there’s a secular lesson here, too.
In times of uncertainty, doubt and even fear — take another step.
Our plans won’t be perfect, no matter how bright the day is and no matter how clear our understanding of the direction may be.  And it’s ok to pause, reassess.  As Dad said, it’s sometimes ok to “don’t just do something, stand there!”
But once we catch our breath, we ought to take another step.  And another step.
In a secular fashion, forward is what we’re seeking in our work.  If I weave the Faith angle back in (and you knew I would…), the destination is set, there is really no reason to be afraid, so we trust — and we take another step.  And another step.
It’s unreasonable to think that we’re always going to have a completely clear path.  It’s foolish to expect the road to be well-lit, smooth and always predictable.
It’s wise though, to take a deep breath, trust, and take another step.
Editor’s Note:  Unless we’re a physician or in the military, our mistakes won’t result in someone dying or losing a limb.  “Taking another step,” is partly about understanding the stakes, and trusting our plan, our True North and moving forward.  And, as usual, I won’t apologize for the Faith angle — it applies for me and it ultimately is all that matters for me — and after all, it’s my blog…  

That Moment You Realize You’re Not Doing Enough…

“Unity is the beginning of community.”

–     Sandy Teeter Nelson (b. 1944), 2019 WallacesFarmer Master Farm Homemaker inductee

Full disclaimer.  Sandy is my first cousin.  She hosts 42 Stark descendants for Christmas, inheriting that task when Mom got too sick about 20 years ago.  I’ve always thought Sandy was one of the best people in my life.

Turns out, she’s one of the best people in life.  Period.

The Wallaces Farmer is a staple in Iowa, for those who grew up on farms.  The publication’s Master Farm Homemakers is a “hall of fame” of sorts for the women who make the farm economy in Iowa even a little more special than farms anywhere else.  (I’m a native.  I can make that claim without substantiation, ’cause it’s true as heck!)

As I gathered with Sandy’s kids, my sister, brother-in-law and nephew and a half dozen other friends and relatives, and as we all listened to all the things that Sandy has done for others, we in turn looked at one another and said, “Wow.  What have I done with my life compared to that?”

Not.  Much.

I typically don’t do comparisons.  They’re usually pointless and social media makes us feel awful enough about our vacations, cars, restaurant choices (“Oh!  You’re at French Kitchen.  Good for you!”) and all that crap.  Somehow though, I realized in listening to 15 minutes of “Sandy does _______ for people she may or may not know,” and “Sandy does ________, in addition to farming 3,000 acres with her husband, hosting every major family event, never missing a grand kids event….”

  1. Sandy was sort of embarrassed by all the attention.
  2. She’d keep doing it if no one ever knew about any of it.
  3. She’d keep looking for new ways to help.  Someone.  Anyone.  Everyone.
  4. If I started today, and devoted half of every day for the rest of my life to trying to do what she does and has done, she’d still lap me in life.

She’s raised great kids.  She’s a fantastic grandma.  With only one of our mom’s generation remaining, Sandy’s become the unofficial matriarch of the Stark family.  (She wasn’t asked to do that, either.  She just stepped in where her mom and aunt left off…) Instead of (fill in your celebrity Twitter-banger and / or Instagram-bazillion-followers-flash-in-the-pan here) we ought to point the next generation at people like Sandy Nelson.

In her short speech, she talked about others, not herself.  She talked about her kids.  She thanked us for being there.  She said her folks taught her that “unity is the beginning of community.”

Thank you, Sandy, for a lifetime of examples of how to be a Difference Maker.  Of how to put our time and money and effort and focus on the really important, and for leaving no time for anything that seems urgent to crowd out the really important things.  Things like caring first for others.  Things like leaving every place you go better than you found it when you arrived.

Full disclaimer.  Sandy is my first cousin.  She is also a primary role model for me, and I am deeply thankful to have grown up a Stark – Heston.  I’m also deeply thankful to have been in the Des Moines Airport Holiday Inn Friday, for a direct lesson on what I ought to do with the rest of my life, and what I wish I’d have done more of with the part already lived.

Three Random Thoughts, One Concept

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will love the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

–     Og Mandino (1923 – 1996), American author, including “The Greatest Salesman In The World”

Three completely random thoughts.

One, we never really know.  As Dr. Graf taught me, “Good news?  Bad news?  Who knows?”  His point, as long-time subscribers have seen dozens of times, is that most things in life aren’t good or bad, right or wrong.  Most things just are.  That’s just the way it is.

Two, facts are often facts, but the truth is always the truth.  It’s when we confuse the two, or try to force facts to equal truth that we get out of whack.  Example:  Fact:  “We had a great month!  Wow, if that bluebird deal hadn’t come in, we were dead!  The pipeline scares the crap out of me!”  Truth:  The pipeline indicates that our process isn’t working.  We’re closer to dead than thriving, in the business context.  Something fundamental has to change, because we can’t sustain this way.

Three, I love — and I mean L-O-V-E — football season.  I never played, and can’t relate to the hits, the speed, the violence or the non-stop TV timeouts (doh!), but it’s both a great release from the workaday life and, at the same time, a perfect metaphor for business strategy.  The great leaders, long-term, are the coaches that commit to a process, to a way, not just to a scoreboard.

One concept.

We need to have a way.  When it’s light, the way is easy to follow.  When it’s dark, the way becomes our headlights and compass.  Our way ought to be built on truth and dedicated to the long-term — the process that produces the outcomes — and it doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s.  It just has to be.


If we lose our way, we can find a path back to it.  If we don’t have a way, we’ll never know where we’re headed, or if it’s even a destination worth reaching.

Who We Hang With…

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

–     Proverbs 27:17

Who we hang with matters.  There are multiple studies that say the ____ people with whom we spend the most time are a powerful influence on our level of satisfaction and how compellingly we engage in life.

As Difference Makers, we’re called to sharpen others, yet that’s not the whole gig.  We’re also called to allow ourselves to be sharpened.

Yesterday, I spent the bulk of the day with a fellow sharpener, and we both came away with a “better edge on the blade.”  This morning I got a group text from a team of sharpeners, a couple of whom have never met one another, but who are, by affiliation, impacting the rest of the group.

The easy path is to avoid the sparks, heat and honing of the sharpening wheel.  The road more traveled is full of traffic that doesn’t ming being dull or getting duller.  The easy path is to hang with people who not only don’t make us better, they’re not interested in getting better.

The Difference Maker’s path has lots of metal grindings alongside.  It’s a road less traveled and full of significance, trust, transparency and commitment.

As we sharpen one another, the Difference-making multiplies.  We, and those with whom we hang make each other #getbettereveryday.

“The” or “A?”

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

–     Thomas Merton, aka “Father Louis” (1915 – 1968), American Trappist Monk, philosopher

Solving problems is the good stuff.  It’s what we try to do as Difference Makers.

Too often, though, I wonder if we’re spending all our energy on finding the solution, when simply a solution gets us to the next round.

There are times that we want to get it “just right,” and those are self-evident in the moment.  The trick we play on ourselves is when we put the pressure of perfection on a decision that simply calls for “good enough.”

Today, it is likely that a solution will be called for several times.  Unless you happen to be a surgeon or a skydiver, it is quite unlikely that there is only one “the” solution.  Let’s don’t waste our time looking for perfect, when perfect doesn’t exist.

Strategy, Strategy, Strategy

“When you climb a fruitless tree, you go hungry.”

–     Ernest Agyemang Yeboah, Ghanaian writer and teacher

Strategy over structure.  Every time.

Strategy is what tells us if there’s any fruit in them there trees.

Strategy is what guides us on the day that tactics, markets, personalities, moods, weather, flight delays, serendipity or lucky breaks try to distract us.

Strategy is what determines structure.

Strategy is what defines everything.

Strategy is what drives me, and it’s why I’m so passionate about “strategy over structure,” which I’ve written and spoken about often, most pointedly, perhaps, in this post from late last year.

Strategy is what defines our “true north.”

Strategy is not, however, permanent.  It’s not a magnetic reading on a compass, but it’s almost as solid of a guiding light.

Strategy can and should change, if there’s compelling new information that drives the change.  An investor interested in something “sort of like” what we’re doing isn’t a reason to change the strategy.  It might be a reason to look more closely at execution, but in-and-of-itself, it’s not a reason to alter course.  A client who tries to open a bidding war for our services isn’t a reason to change the strategy.  A prospect who wants to hire us to do something we’re not well-equipped to do isn’t either.  In other words, if the strategy is “to get the most money possible,” it ain’t really a strategy.

Strategy is easily (perhaps too easily?) framed in three realms; mission, vision, values.

What’s our mission, our purpose, our “what,” if you will?  What problem are we out to solve?  What is the “win” for those to whom we plan to sell — and to their customers, if applicable?

What’s our vision, our connection to our “why?”  Why are we out to solve this particular problem and why do we think we’re the ones to git’r done?

Finally, what are our values, and do they drive our “how?”  Who’s gonna look back from the mirror at the end of each day.  When we win?  When we lose?  What do we stand for and how does that dictate the way we think, feel and act?

That last one is why structure comes last.  When we decide what we’re gonna do, why we’re gonna do it and how we’re gonna get it done, only then can we determine if we have the right bus, the right seats on the bus, let alone the right people in the seats.

Change is inevitable.  Misery is optional.  Hunger can’t be sated by an empty tree.  Strategy is deciding which tree to climb.


What If The Audience Is Diverse? No, I Mean REALLY…

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.  At that point, who cares?  He’s a mile away and you have his shoes…”

–     A funny, if inappropriate, t-shirt slogan, and a biiiiiiig stretch to today’s point…

The Diff returns, and I’ve decided to see if I can really stretch the connection between the headline, the quote and the message…  I mean, it’s been a few weeks, I should be rested, right?

Speakers need to be relatable.  They need to find or forge a connection to their audience.  So, walking a mile in their shoes (but not with the intent of stealing them) is a good start.  The hard part is when you find yourself looking at 50 pairs of shoes, some brand new, some completely broken in — all different sizes, styles and functionality.  And in 20 minutes together, you somehow have to log as many steps in each pair as you can.

Yikes!  Enough with the forced analogy, ok?  Let’s get real.

You’ve been asked to speak to a group.  “The audience is very diverse in their level of sophistication, experience, funding, understanding of their challenge and access to staff and resources all varies greatly, ” your sponsor says.  And you’re thinking, “Hmmmmm, this isn’t like I’ve been asked to speak to the Salesman Club or the Rotary.”

Except it is.

Every audience is diverse.  No matter how much they might look alike, sound the same and come from a similar background, each person comes to each interaction with their own expectations, experience (baggage?), attitude and perspective.  And you’ve got :20 to connect with as many of them as you can in the deepest possible way.  You were invited, you accepted and here you are, in front of 50 faces — all staring at you with a different idea of who they are, who you are and just what they’re supposed to glean from you in your twenty minutes together.

A good place to start is to remember that you were asked to speak for a reason.  And, everyone of them wants something from their investment of time.

So, what do we do?  How do we craft a short message to register with 26.4 different personality types and 45.8 different pre-conceived ideas in a room of 50 people?

We ask.

And, then, we break it down.

“What is it you’d like to have at the end of this time that you don’t have now?”  It’s a powerful way to open any meeting.

“It seems like _____, ______, and ______ are the hot topics, right?  How about if we use them as a framework for this first discussion, and then we circle back to each of you to make sure you’re getting value from this time together?”

That’s just one example.

The point is this:  The audience is always diverse, no matter how generic it seems, and you have something they want or need, so why not let them tell you what it is?  It’ll make the experience more valuable for them, and easier for you!