David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker came as a recommendation to us from one of the #PoDojo attendees. In the Sensei’s words: “Really read this book, it makes you think about all of those things we do day to day that we shouldn’t do, but we do them anyway.”

Many thanks to this Sensei, this book has become dog-eared on our shelves.

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We have a new year coming up soon, and you want to lose weight, (or at least not gain any.) You know what to you need to do: exercise, eat healthy foods, and heavens no, do NOT over-indulge during the holiday season. The odds are, however, that you will not do this. Everybody knows what to do but they just don’t do it. Why? Because they aren’t sick. Once they have that first heart attack things will change. In Maister’s words: “Real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared to others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.” In effect, he redefines “strategy” as being all about execution.

The “Fat Smoker” analogy is memorable, it means that we don’t always do what we know is good for us, even when it comes to running a business. In order to achieve great results, we have to break the old habits that have kept us in the same old ruts. We’ve watched leaders struggle with defining, clarifying and implementing business strategies. They struggle because it’s not easy work. It’s like dieting or quitting smoking and staying with it. It’s incredibly hard work!

Drawing on the diet/smoking analogy, Maister offers up useful ways to think about strategy. This starts with having the right attitude toward our own work, interacting more effectively with co-workers, and building inspired, cohesive organizations. One chapter in the book worth the price of the book alone is “A Great Coach in Action”, summarizing Maister’s own story of how a senior colleague got him started with his first research project. Sharing the lessons learned at the end of the chapter:

  • There needs to be real, agreed-upon standards for behavior. An example: Coaching feedback is given in the context, not at the end of the week during a retrospective.
  • Informal and unscheduled coaching has the most powerful effect.
  • Make it personal –”he talked about me, and only me” – don’t talk about the organisation, talk about the person.
  • Don’t criticize – if there are real, agreed upon standards, then you both know when they haven’t been met.
  • Provide some concrete, tangible assistance with whatever needs to be done. As a coach, you must actually help the person you are coaching.
  • Focus on simple, doable, next steps, not the ultimate term goal that seems far-reaching.
  • Show your confidence in the person’s abilities.
  • Keep your word.

And another chapter for heads of firms: Skip straight to the chapter titled “The Chief Executive’s Speech.” Put it on some note cards and give it the next beginning of the fiscal year all-hands meeting. This is what you should be saying instead of the things you’ve been saying before.