The one thing you need to know...
In 1980, while the smoke was still settling on the Vietnam War, the US Military Academy at West Point founded a behavioural science unit dedicated to unpacking the operational failures of that conflict. It was headed up by Colonel Tom Colditz, a decorated veteran who’d seen a lifetime of great plans wither in the face of enemy fire. Wrote Colditz: “In war, unpredictable things happen—the weather changes, a key asset is destroyed, the enemy responds in a way you don’t expect. Many armies fail because they put all their emphasis into creating a plan that becomes useless ten minutes into the battle.” In short, no plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s not that the plan is “wrong”, just that it’s weakened by excessive detail.. Before you think these sorts of things only happen in the military, consider your own profession for a minute. Have you developed a plan to weather any and all eventualities? If so, is it still clear? Probably not. It’s a dilemma that even the best planners face. So what to do? The great management theorist Peter Drucker once asked: “Why make a hundred decisions when one big decision will do?” The truth is that at the heart of most complex realities lies a single yet controlling insight. In his book “The One Thing you need to Know”, Marcus Buckingham warns that to lose sight of this “one thing” is to diminish even your best efforts at implementation. The converse, explains Buckingham is to, “keep mindful of the one thing, understand all of its ramifications, orient your decisions around it”. Drucker’s “one big decision”, it would seem, is the key to greater power and effectiveness. Years of bloodshed from botched missions had led Tom Colditz to the same conclusion. From then on, in lieu of bogging field commanders down with too much detail, the army would use something called “Commander’s Intent”, (CI) a plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order. It specifies the goal or desired end state of an operation and, in some cases, the critical moves. The CI is light on detail because too many moving parts make it vulnerable to unpredictable events. Commander’s Intent contains just enough information so that people will remember it and will be able to improvise when circumstances arise that put the end game at risk Perhaps the most stunning example of Commander’s Intent at work is seen in the performance of US consumer electronics retailer Best Buy between 2002 and 2008. In 2002, Brad Anderson was appointed as the new CEO. After months of analysis and statistical gymnastics he made the following statement:
“Our intent is to re-design the company to serve those customers who want to integrate our technology into their lives but who don’t know how”.
Who were these customers? They were, in Anderson’s words, “the type of folk who don’t know whether they need speakers with 50 watts per channel or 200 watts. Who aren’t sure if they should buy an inkjet printer or a laser printer. Who like the look of our digital cameras but who don’t understand what ‘resolution’ means”. The numbers revealed that Exhibit A in this universe of people was a soccer mum who didn’t care about having the newest and best stuff but who really needed a store that was easy to navigate and that made decision making easy. As a statement of intent, it was not only exquisitely simple but sticky as well. We can learn a thing or two from what happened next “Confident Creativity” was unleashed in the business Anderson’s piercing clarity removed any institutional anxiety about having to be all things to all people. A new wave of confidence swept through the business producing a flywheel of creativity, ingenuity and execution. Region by region, store by store, employees devised novel ways of fulfilling the Commander’s Intent in their immediate context. In Best Buy’s Pasadena store, staffers designed playful installations that would appeal to mums with children. This ranged from plywood hot-rod cars that show-cased headrest DVD systems, to plush gaming corners where kids could test drive the latest software releases. In another town, floor attendants created display ends that bundled the best deals on photography including cameras, printers, LCD albums and more. The company’s headquarters in Richfield Minnesota underwent a radical makeover in order to bring the priority shopper to life. Meanwhile, the Geek Squad was acquired to eliminate the pain point of tricky in-home installations. The effect of the CI rippled beyond the core target Despite the laser focus on soccer mums, not all the sales increases came from this cohort. Significant growth came from other shopper types who, although the shopper experience was not necessarily designed around their needs, nonetheless felt as though it was. It turned out that the culture of empathy and service gained from attending to the needs of soccer mums soon produced an intuitive “care” for other customers too. This is what Jim Collins refers to as the “Flywheel Effect”. Simply put, it teaches that “If you do A, then you almost can’t help but do B which in turn will lead to C”. By defining “A”, Anderson had not only eliminated any guesswork or debate around execution, but he had also unlocked “B” - a deep commitment to ALL types of customers. Colditz and Anderson show that you don’t need to be clear on all points relating to plans and strategy. In fact quite the opposite. You need to say just enough to convey the critical essence of what’s needed to win and then let people get on with it
The One thing you need to know, Marcus Buckingham Made to Stick: Chip and Dan Heath