We were sitting in his newly remodeled, corner office with lots of sun light pouring in through the windows. The entire layout had changed since my last visit, including a new desk, conference table, decorations on the wall, photos and even a nice big plant. Stylish and modern, it was impressive.
Once I had been shown around, I settled into a new chair at the conference table and pulled out my blue notebook and a pen. It was time to get down to business. My first question during this executive coaching session was an important one, namely “What do you do that really matters the most?”
His answer wandered for the most part and indicated that he had not studied successful companies much. It also pointed out that he did not fully understand his role as a Senior Manager in the company. Referencing the work of Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2001, this person was a Level 3 Leader, namely a “Competent Manager” who “organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.”
Not being afraid of asking the hard questions, I asked him another important question, namely “What is strategy?” He replied, “It is a place we need to get to.” And I thought to myself, “The Red Queen lives on.”
In the natural world, the predator and the prey must constantly change or go extinct. Companies and their competitors are also in a constant evolutionary dance, too. When one evolves a slight edge over another, the other responds by developing it’s own edge. For example, some McDonalds are serving expresso coffee. In turn, some Starbucks are offering a dollar cup of coffee.
Evolutionary ecologists call this the “Red Queen Principle.” Named in 1973 by Leigh Van Valen after the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who observed to Alice: “In this place, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”
We have not explored this concept in much depth since we talked about it at the Spring 2008 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. However, given current events within many companies, the status of the world economy and the threat of a double dip recession within the United States, it is time to re-examine this concept again. Right now more and more executives report to me that they and their companies are working as hard as they can to be profitable and they feel like they are running in place. For some, their strategy is clear but not being implemented effectively. Others have the opposite problem with daily operations trumping strategy. Still, the Red Queen Principle does not go away.
While there are no simple solutions to such complex challenges, there are specific actions that a senior team can take when confronting such a situation.
First, initiate a complete and in-depth strategic review to make sure the company has the right strategy for the right environment. If it does, then move to improving the quality of strategic execution. If not, then engage in developing a new and more focused strategy. Selective abandonment of misaligned strategies can be an effective solutions.
Second, clarify what is the company’s brand and competitive advantage. Then, proactively cascade this information deep into the organization in order to help everyone to remain focused on what is most important. Empower key people to act with this in mind.
Third, communicate the importance of customer service and focus on this element at the qualitative and quantitative levels. Remember the research by William J. McEwen in his book, Married To The Brand: Why Consumers Bond With Some Brands For Life, Gallup Press, 2005. As he writes, “every time a customer comes in contact with a company ... the brand relationship can be enhanced. Or it can be diminished. Brand marriages aren’t static; they continue to evolve.” Therefore, he reminds us that “successful marriage management can be achieved only by company-wide commitment and aligned, integrated efforts.” When we work on making sure we have the right strategy, brand clarity and consistent high-quality customer service, then we are working on alignment and integration across the whole company.
In the constant evolutionary dance, there are strategic level changes that need to be made and the operational level changes that need to be made. Dealing with the Red Queen requires both.