Linking risky strategy to character


[Extract from my book, “Risky Strategy” to be published in 2016]

I recount my experience as a strategy consultant working with the value disciplines set out by Treacy & Wiersema in their book: “The disciplines of market leaders”

I found that when I worked with clients on the organisational factors which would help inform which strategic discipline they would be most likely to prosper in, there was one important question which was hard to answer.  I could see fairly readily what types of processes they had in place, how much they spent in each, what performance metrics were most important, what they told the market they were about.  All of these would give me some idea of whether or not this business would lean more readily to product leading, or being intimate with customers,  or being operationally excellent.

The big question I couldn’t easily answer, nor could the client’s senior management, was:  what personal attributes of the people in the business supported one discipline or the other.  So I developed a management tool to help me do that,  a Character Profiler which was named after my business, Blonay.

Blonay Character Profiler

An important influence in developing this tool was a sentence I came across in the Apostle Paul’s letter to a colleague called Timothy, for whom he was very much a mentor.  Paul initially reminds him to “fan into flame the gift that God has given him”.  He is talking about personal strengths in his character.  I was moved by the picture that made me think of fanning the glowing embers of a campfire to the point where it bursts into flames – the idea that a little persistent encouragement to an apparently lifeless situation with signs of potential, can suddenly create so much energy and vitality.  What a picture of leadership that is.

He then goes on to say, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline”.  I remember thinking that this sounded like a complete set of virtues to which many probably aspire and are able to exhibit to varying degrees.  “Power” spoke to me of the ability to create or inspire positive change; in other translations, it is “boldness”.  There is the virtue most closely connected with courage.  This spirit is the spirit of the pioneer,  bold and creative at the same time.

Then we have the spirit of love. The word “love” I believe is much abused in modern life to mean a plethora of things.  For me the essence is about relationship with our fellow human beings, to be committed to positive relationship. The underlying ability is to be able to see or feel things from another person’s perspective: to be able to empathise.

And finally there is the spirit of self-discipline.  In essence, for me, this is about a personal attention to getting and doing things right, to be ordered and organised, and to be passionately interested in truth.

These for me appear to be demanding personal attributes.  Some of us I suspect are stronger in one of these virtues than we are in the other two. In fact it is probably very difficult to be consistently strong in all three dimensions.  Be strong in one doesn’t help you to be strong in either of the other two. From a mathematical perspective, I would describe them as orthogonal – completely mutually independent of one another in terms of human character.

And it occurred to me that this was a similar story to that which Treacy tells. There are three organisational disciplines which can lead to a prosperous position in the marketplace.   And it is very hard to be strong in all three – because to some extent they conspire against one another.  They create trade-offs.  As do Paul’s three virtues.

So I borrowed this idea to develop the Blonay Character Profiler, which is about assessing personal character on three character dimensions.  I have called these:  Bold Creative,  Empathic and Self-Disciplined.

The main similarities between these and the Treacy disciplines is the idea that these three dimensions create tensions, either within us as people as in the case of the Character Profiler, or within organisations, as in the case of the disciplines.   This means there are trade-offs to be made – dilemmas to be addressed.  I have already discussed this in the organisational context, and will explain more about how this works in a personal context a bit later.

There is also some similarity in terms of what these three dimensions represent.  So in this sense, I chose to map one model onto the other.  Bold Creative maps to the Product Leadership discipline.  Empathic maps to the Customer Intimacy discipline. And Self-disciplined maps to the Organisational Excellence dimension.

At the time of writing, I have as yet unsubstantiated hypothesis that Product Leadership organisations need more Bold Creative leaders, Customer Intimate organisations need more Empathic leaders, and Operational Excellent leaders need more Self-disciplined leaders.  What I have discovered is that the Blonay model has a high level of resonance with managers considering these kinds of issues, more generally in connection with strategy.   The model also works well in helping to understand the attitude and appetite individuals have to risk. Bold Creatives tend to have a greater appetite for risk than the other two character attributes.

Before developing the dynamics of this profiler further, I was further encouraged in my quest to focus on these three character attributes by the work of Jim Collins at Stanford, covered in his book, “Good to Great”. (Collins J. , 2001)   Jim Collins in his research identified that the leadership characteristics which differentiated his high flying 11 organisations from the rest seem to fall into three buckets: discipline, humility and resolve. The Blonay Profiler mirrors these in a similar set of three character attributes.