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How do you behave at the buffet table?

Dec 24, 2017 Strategy, Sunday Nation

It’s the holiday season, a time for wining and dining with family and friends. If you are fortunate, there may be some lavish buffets coming your way this Christmas: an enticing range of sumptuous dishes: starters, salads, mains, desserts, afters.

I don’t wish to be a party pooper, but I do want to share a secret with you this year.

The context first: I am a strategy and leadership advisor, clocking nearly three decades in that line of work. I have developed, devised, observed, refined or dumped many an organizational strategy over the years. I have worked with strategy teams good and bad.

So here’s the secret. I can spot a proper strategist long before we do any strategy work together. All I need is for us to have a meal together. And that meal must involve a buffet table.

The non-strategist does this at the buffet: he or she starts piling various dishes on the plate quickly without rhyme or reason, in large quantities, trying pretty much everything out. And here’s what the natural strategist does: first a slow recce of the whole buffet, noting everything that’s on offer; and then a focused, narrow selection of dishes that actually go together or that offer the promise of superior look and taste.

The strategist chooses, in other words. Everyone else just piles it on.

Why do most people fail to discriminate when confronted with an all-you-can-eat buffet, though? I am not referring here to relatively impoverished people who encounter their first chance to eat well at a buffet. We might forgive them for grabbing their chance. But those are not the only people engorging themselves haphazardly and injudiciously at smorgasbords all over the world. Even well-to-do, seasoned diners can be seen overdoing it. Why so?

There are two reasons. First, there is the fallacy of thinking that if something is paid for, it must be exploited to the full. Second, there is the misjudgment that everything that is available must be taken. Most people think exactly like that. Strategists, however, do not.

If you have paid for the buffet, that act is done. It’s in the past. It’s a cost that’s been incurred. What matters now is what comes next. The buffet can now be enjoyed, or suffered. The pleasure of gluttony, if it exists at all, is only momentary. The body cannot take that kind of excess, and pain and discomfort soon follows. Many people seem to behave even more extremely when someone else has paid for the buffet. Witness the stampedes for food we see at some weddings…

A wide-ranging repast, equally, is not a license for excess. Feasts have a large selection not so that you try every damn thing that’s before you; the range is there to give you choices. You can look at every dish, consider its merits and then decide what really matters to you, and choose accordingly.

Doing well at strategy, folks, is exactly the same as doing well at the buffet table. It requires three disciplines. First, genuine focus – making real choices from amongst competing alternatives. Really successful businesses do not try to make every possible offering or pitch for every possible customer. They go narrow and go deep. They offer genuinely distinctive value to their chosen markets.

Second, harmony. Strategy is a symphony, not a medley; it’s a novel, not a collection of disparate tales. A proper strategy is coherent. Its parts fit together, and every element benefits from the others.

And the third discipline of the natural strategist? That of foresight. Good strategists are forward looking: they go beyond the current situation and create a game plan for a future that’s not quite visible yet. Just as the wise buffet visitor considers the consequences of overdoing the feast, the wise strategist looks beyond the temptations and traps of the present and pitches for something that is selective, sustainable and far-sighted, not that which is fixated on immediate, illusory gain.

So if you’re a board looking for a CEO with a good strategic brain, or a CEO looking for a natural strategist to join your team: ask the candidate to prepare a presentation on strategy for your organization, by all means. But also take the candidate out for lunch. Just make sure it’s a buffet, and watch carefully.

Oh wait: were you just about to feast on an impressive spread, and have I just ruined your enjoyment? I hope not. If I have brought the strategy disciplines of focus, harmony and foresight on what you do next, I think you’ll thank me later. Enjoy…

(Sunday Nation, 24 December 2017)

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