Are You Framing Your Business for Mediocrity?

Strategic framing is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to set expectations and drive innovation. Take Roger Smith the CEO of GM from 1981 to 1990.  He oversaw one of the greatest corporate declines in history. GMs strategic frame was one of the trade-offs. You could either have a high-quality car or a low-cost car, but not both. Toyota reframed what was possible. Not only could you get both a low-cost and high-quality car, but it was exactly through building quality in that Toyota was able to deliver at low cost.

And this is exactly what great leaders do. They reframe from a “trade-off” to “both and.” For many years I helped numerous airlines deliver great performance from their maintenance operations. During the 80s and 90’s it was imperative that global carriers deliver high safety, high quality, great delivery, low downtime, and low overall costs. How did the best ones do this? First, they set this as their requirement. Next, they put their talent, creativity, and ingenuity to work against meeting this challenge.

Sam Walton motivated his associates to “Swim Upstream.”   This was his term for going against conventional wisdom and accomplishing what was seen as impossible. This is exactly what Walmart did when developing its environmental sustainability strategy. Fourteen teams competed against each other to innovate and build “swimming upstream” business cases in areas such as buildings, logistics, and packaging.  Each team engaged with external partners including environmental nonprofits to develop strategies and business plans that were good for the planet and good for business. The buildings team found ways to build on innovative ideas and make them practical. Two years earlier they had rejected similar ideas from the same nonprofit that was instrumental in this success. The difference is leadership framing. The first time if the nonprofit was right then Walmart was wrong. This time, they were both on the same team, doing the impossible together, just as Sam Walton had modeled.

Great Performance in business today begins with great framing.  You must require that your business be good for your shareholders, good for your stakeholders, and good for the world.  And you need to align your business model accordingly.  With great framing and follow through you will attract and engage the best employees and partners and unleash their collective ingenuity.

Taking Action: Ask yourself how you are framing your initiatives and projects.  Are they framed as a win for your organization, unit, or team but at the expense of side effects that harm others?  Or are they framed as a win/win?  Then choose one initiative and reframe it from a “trade-off” to a “both-and” and encourage creativity and ingenuity as a path to great performance.

Posted by David Sherman

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