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7 Steps To Strategic Greatness

In 2005, I left Los Angeles to work in China on a film production called “The Wall” (you guessed it) for Warner Bros. and China Film Group. It seemed like a great idea at the time. The Hollywood film industry had been devastated by nearly a decade of labor and union strife. Production costs were skyrocketing and marketing budgets were matching them. Young, cheap production and marketing talent was flooding the market at little or no cost to studios and agencies.

Overnight, the film industry turned into an Ivy League campus. Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Williams and Stanford grads offered themselves up in exchange for an internship- the gold standard having become a slot reading scripts at Universal or sorting mail (yep, they had mail in those days) at CAA.

Suddenly, I was old and expensive. Given the opportunity, I came to the quick conclusion that It was time to explore, After 122 films- over two dozen Oscar nominees like Kramer vs Kramer, The Big Chill and Midnight Express- I saw an opening into a new world. I jumped. I was off to Beijing.

Upon arrival, things went sideways quickly. Within a couple of months, Warner Bros. walked away from the production and shut down production operations as well as their Beijing studio and their presence in China. With them went the Western production and executive talent. The film script disappeared into SARFT, the censorship arm of the Chinese government (never saw it again). My Mandarin language skills were sorely lacking, and my partners took their guanxi (basically Chinese for “relationships”) with them.

Upon recent reflection, I came to the conclusion that much of my situation was identifiable, some of it was predictable and at least a couple of issues were downright obvious.

Could I have made better a better decision in the first place?

As I look back on this (things actually turned out OK in the end), I asked myself the question: “when faced with this critical choice, if I knew then what I know now, would I have made the same decisions?


Should I have bet everything on “maybe”?

Probably not.

I was trained originally as a management consultant. On behalf of my clients and myself, I deal with risk and uncertainty every day. What I now know is that, In even the most well-known organizations, key decisions are often left to chance or, at best, to an organized guessing game.

With all of today’s planning tools available, its staggering how often leaders still have a difficult time navigating the rapids of uncertainty. My key learning has been that not factoring into key decisions the impact of unknown events can derail even the best ideas and initiatives.

I also know that:

This damage to creativity, client relationships and individual careers is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to occur.

While no one can predict the future, the risks that are caused by not exploring it effectively can punish a company’s bottom line. The good news is that uncertainty and change can be managed and reduced significantly. The resulting savings to organizations and their clients almost certainly will return the entire cost of the time spent on learning how to do this.

Before I came to China and while working with BMW’s Designworks team and their new CEO Henrik Fisker (future inventor of the Fisker Car) in Southern California. My partners at True North Leadership and I implemented a training program that we called “War Games”. We used scenario planning, teambuilding,micro-assessment and leadership coaching to train a team of 20 managers (who oversaw 140 designers and innovation teams).

Our goal with this three-month program was to teach mid and senior level leaders how to 1) reduce uncertainty caused by unpredictable events, 2) increase the speed and accuracy of decisions that must be made quickly, and; 3) measure the results incrementally and continuously to gauge progress of an initiative.

“War Games” was both a learning lab and a planning exercise, and it was a fantastic experience. The program used information and data that was crafted from then-current company strategy and live marketplace scenarios. This type of dynamic process allowed the teams and their leaders to learn how to reduce risk by testing a broad range of decision options across multiple stakeholders before going to market with a strategy.

We subsequently took the program to more innovative companies:,Ford, GM, Dreamworks Animation and Accenture and the like. Over the next three years we uncovered some valuable information:

In organizations that do not prepare and practice for constant change, key decisions are left to chance and guessing. The inability of key managers to deal with this type of uncertainty can kill even the best ideas and initiatives.

  1. In organizations that do not prepare and practice for constant change, key decisions are left to chance and guessing.
  2. The inability of key managers to deal with this type of uncertainty can kill even the best ideas and initiatives.
  3. This damage to organizations and individual careers is 100% preventable.
  4. Innovative planning should be integrated with strategy and it should be built to fit into real time, real world campaign launches, project management and interactive customer marketing programs.
  5. When facing the task of making a tough choice or making no choice at all, too often “standing pat” is chosen as a decision option.
  6. When “standing pat” occurs, every stakeholder suffers, primarily because so much is left to chance. Worse yet, decisions are left to guesses made by the wrong people.
  7. Making a tough decision provides choices and options that could never be otherwise predicted.

In the end, my overriding management mantra, which has served me well over the past 25 years is:

when faced with a tough decision, don’t pass on the opportunity to be great. It’s not OK to be afraid. Think through the options. Make the best decisions that you can and know that, in the end, your work will contribute positively to change.

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