Strategy Workout

23 March 2006

David Maister assesses why organisations know what they should be doing, but rarely commit to taking action. The professional services management guru explains all in an exclusive extract from his new book, 'Strategy and the Fat Smoker'.

Much of what companies do in the name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time, no more effective than individuals making New Year’s resolutions.

Personally and professionally, we already know what we should be doing: losing weight, giving up smoking, exercising more. In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, provide fulfilling, motivating careers.

We know what to do, we know why we should do it and we know how to do it. Yet we seldom change, as individuals or as businesses.

The problem is that many change efforts are based on the assumption that all you have to do is to explain to people that their life could be better, be convincing that the goals are worth going for, and show them how to do it.

This is patently false. If this were true, there would be no drug addicts in the world, no alcoholics, no bad marriages: ‘Oh, I see, it’s not good for me? Ah, well then, I’ll stop.’

And yet strategic plans, annual speeches by CEOs, managing partners, management consultants and others continue to have this same useless structure.


The primary reason we do not work at our known areas of self-improvement is that the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate.

We start self-improvement programmes with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the programme arises, we abandon our efforts completely. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying a little on a new strategy.

You don’t get a great marriage by cutting out half your affairs, nor clear your lungs by cutting out half the cigarettes. A half-implemented strategy is the worse of both worlds: disruption and discomfort with no benefit.

As Jean Nidetch (the founder of Weight Watchers) believed, the pursuit of quick weight-loss is always self-defeating and ill-advised. If you don’t understand from the beginning that you have to change your lifestyle, now and forever, then you are wasting your time.

"A half-implemented strategy is the worse of both worlds: disruption and discomfort with no benefit"

Strategy has to be seen as accepting diet, not the goal, and the only way to genuine success is to find a diet that you can and will stick to. Strategy is not about analysis of smart things to do; it is all about figuring out what you have the resolve to stick with, in spite of significant short-term temptations.


The essential question of strategy is: ‘which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever? Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make? What issues are we really ready to tackle?’ And to work, the diet must be tough. If you are aiming for transforming benefits, there is no such thing as a pleasant diet.

Strategy, if it is to be lived and achieved, is about modifying the very rules of daily living and scorekeeping. It’s not about adding something new to your regular way of operating, but fundamentally changing your regular way of working. (You must build your new exercise routine into your lifestyle, not just exercise if your regular lifestyle allows you to fit it in.

Because diets always come with temptations, there must be no doubt in employees’ minds about what management is seriously committed to, and isn’t just advocating. If, for example, a group of employees faces a trade off between a lesser volume of high-quality work, or a greater volume of ‘acceptable-quality’ work, it is critical that they understand without ambiguity what choice firm leaders wish them to make. It’s on choices like these that strategy implementation fails. We say we want the weight loss, but we’re not prepared to sacrifice any short-term pleasures to get there. Or at least, the employees don’t believe management is willing to make that sacrifice. Your strategic resolve must be credible, and beyond doubt.

If the diet achieves the force of moral principle (for example, if ‘treating clients and employees with respect is a value around here, not just a tactic’), the odds that successful implementation will be achieved are significantly higher. And if the leadership of the organisation wants the people in it to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must be prepared to change the way they act, measure and reward.


The essence of successful strategic change is not technique, but will. To achieve any goal, you must really want the goal. Everyone in the organisation has to decide if they want to try hard enough to sacrifice some of the present to achieve a better tomorrow and you’ll never be good enough as a firm if participation in your firm’s definition of excellence is optional.

Even with an agreed diet however, there is a need for skilled coaching in leading individuals and teams through the ongoing struggle to attain the goals they have committed to.

"Your strategic resolve must be credible, and beyond doubt."

Good trainers know that life-changing improvement can and does fail by rushing to either of the two extremes: establishing improvement goals that are too ambitious or take too long to achieve, thus leading to frustration and abandonment of the programme; or failing to establish any pressure to improve, allowing people to pretend that they plan to get on the programme, but just not today.

Business should be paying less attention to constantly defining strategy and instead, looking hard at how achievements are actually made. It would do well to examine well-documented methodologies from other major challenges in life, like losing weight, getting fit or giving up smoking.