Measurement & Instrumentation

Strategy on Wire

by Jillian Walker 28 Apr 2014
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The 2008 documentary Man on Wire chronicles French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s legendary walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers shortly after their completion. Viewers lose themselves in Petit’s excitement, as he recounts (in dizzying detail) how he pulled off (and lived to tell of) “le coup.” The film happens to be on many “best of” lists and is Rotten Tomatoes’ second-highest rated movie, and while its appeal owes something to eccentric characters and a heist-like narrative, I suspect that its popularity has more to do with balance: how to achieve it, and how best to preserve it.

Balance takes effort. In Man on Wire, split screens show us how it’s action that produces balance: the images on screen left compete with, ultimately evening out, those on screen right. Balance is constantly threatened by external forces. Thus, Petit describes how wires sway (back and forth, up and down) and rotate (with imperceptible torque), undermining his stability. Balance is a fleeting, precarious thing. It can take a long time to get and only a few seconds to lose.

This idea is part of the film’s ongoing appeal, and perhaps why acts of balance continually fascinate us (whether on a rope or a beam). It’s why walking a fine line is often a metaphor for how we live: we balance work with play, and caring for ourselves with doing for others. Strategists seek balance in their roles as much as we do on our yoga mats, and thus balance is a recurring theme in GTM and SCIP’s Corporate Strategy Priorities Survey results. For the second consecutive year, respondents cite balancing profit generation with setting long-term strategies as a top challenge. Perhaps this is because unexpected shifts and turns mean that markets are the high-wires organizations must navigate and quickly adjust to. Revenue demand and strategic investments are opposite ends of Strategy’s balancing pole, and they must be aligned to ensure stability.

According to the survey, strategists also struggle to maintain balance when tracking initiatives. Not surprisingly, financial metrics firmly occupy one end of the pole (so to speak), but what balances these out is less certain: Strategists cite identifying and defining metrics as top initiative tracking challenges. To be sure, balancing financials with other value determinants is hard. Financial metrics are clear cut when compared to the more nebulous ones that track, say, employee engagement. But, with difficulty comes opportunity. These fuzzy metrics are also the most malleable, holding potential to change what measures of success (for both company and initiative) look like.

Driving to work the other day, I caught an NPR story about Millennials, who want their work (and the businesses they own) to have purpose beyond earning a living. Recent articles in Fast Company and Forbes echo this sentiment, but I’m not sure this desire to balance meaning with pay is limited to Millennials.

A larger social paradigm shift is going on. Increasingly, employees of all generations are willing to sacrifice financially for greater self-fulfillment and a company that embraces social responsibility. Their motivation is not necessarily tied to fame or fortune but to contributing something they see as positive. They want to resemble Philippe Petit, who arrested onlookers with 45 minutes of accomplishing the impossible. To be sure, making money always matters, but there is growing potential for idealism to balance strategy planning, even initiative tracking, by shaping the softer metrics that keep profit in perspective.

You might check out how GlaxoSmithKline transformed its bonus-calculating metrics (upholding its purpose to better patients’ lives), and why companies should measure their number of boomerang employees (instead of attrition rates). While you’re at it, download GTM and SCIP’s Survey Results. And, if you haven’t seen it, make sure Man on Wire is in your queue!

Jillian Walker is a best practices research analyst with Frost & Sullivan’s Growth Team Membership. Follow her on Twitter @JillianMWalker.

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