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Noodling about the Fat Smoker

Blog: Bridgeland and Zahavi on Business Modeling

I have been noodling lately about the problem of strategy execution. Some organizations know what they need to do, and they know why. But they cannot seem to do it. They cannot make the process changes required to execute the new strategy. (Have you ever worked for such an organization?)

The recent book Strategy and the Fat Smoker is about strategy execution. Its clever title compares the problem of strategy execution to the difficulties faced by fat smokers.  Today, every fat smoker knows he should change. He knows that he should eat more salads and less ice cream.  He knows he should exercise more and watch less TV. And he knows he should quit tobacco. He knows what he should do, and he knows why. He just cannot manage to change his behavior.

Of course there are significant differences between failures of personal strategy execution—like the fat smoker’s—and failures of organizational strategy execution. All organizations are political, and what is best for the organization as a whole is always worse for some business unit, or some function, or some group. Somebody always loses. And the (prospective) losers will lobby hard to prevent the changes required.

The 2004 book Predictable Surprises looks at failed execution of disaster prevention, organizations that knew what to do to prevent a predictable disaster, but that failed to take the appropriate actions. Bazerman and Watkins—the authors of PredictableSurprises—examine some disasters in detail, and probe into why the disasters were not averted. One disaster they examine is the 9/11 terrorist attack. For 20 years, several government agencies were aware of the increasing violence of jihadists, and their increasing willing to strike at distant infidels in the US as well as nearby infidels in Israel, India, Egypt, etc. For 20 years, the FAA (and other government agencies) was aware of weaknesses in air travel security, including the very tactics used by the 9/11 jihadists. The authors claim that 9/11 was not in fact a “failure of imagination” (as famously described by the 9/11 Commission) but rather a failure of execution: the Gore Commission knew what to do in 1996, but could not manage to execute it, particularly in the face of opposition by the airline industry and by Congress.

Can business modeling (and simulation) help? I suspect so, but I am not sure. That is my noodling topic. The business modeling techniques we describe in our book are certainly useful for figuring out what to do, and how to do it. But the four modeling disciplines we describe are not particularly useful in actually changing behavior once the what and the how are known and accepted. We need something additional, a simulation discipline that explicitly addresses the inherent politics, that allows different groups within the organization to make their cases, and that induces action.

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