Absorbed by Day-to-Day Challenges, Leaders Are Failing to Go to the Balcony Robbing Themselves, Their Organizations, and the World

In this post, Bill Fox and Samira Askarova of AEGIS.net share their thoughts on the recent bestselling book, The Strategist by Cynthia Montgomery.  Our intention is to take a 3,000 ft. view of the book, provide an overview, and talk about the three most impactful ideas that came up for us to intrigue and inspire more leaders to read the book and become better strategists.

Introduction:  A View from 3,000 ft

“Managers who get caught in the trap of overwhelming demands become prisoners of routines,” wrote Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, in A Bias for Action. “They do not have time to notice opportunities. Their habituated work prevents them from taking the first necessary step toward harnessing willpower: developing the capacity to dream an idea into existence and transforming it into a concrete intention.” - From The Strategist

I doubt that there isn’t a leader or manager alive today who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the trappings of the modern, electronically connected world we live in today.  We are bombarded and overwhelmed on so many fronts, we know it and want to slow it down, yet most of us don’t do it successfully.  But do we know what we are giving up and what it’s costing us?


After decades of teaching business strategy to real-world entrepreneurs and up-and-coming private sector leaders, Montgomery has discovered a simple but unintuitive fact.  In determining the best strategic direction for an organization, it is not enough to only focus on the competitive strategy of the company.

It is equally, if not more, important to come up with a statement of purpose that clearly connects the firm to the impact it wishes to make on the outside world.  Montgomery argues that a realistic and relevant yet unique and heart-felt purpose for an enterprise makes all the difference in how well it can do in the marketplace.  And this purpose must start from the individual or the individuals at the helm of the company, directing its path forward in every decision they make.

This individual or individuals have to be strategists to the core to not only come up with the reason for the firm’s existence – something that truly sets it apart and fills a gap in the current offerings, but they should also be open to continuously evolving this purpose, ensuring it is something that the firm’s entire ecosystem - employees, customers, suppliers, and every activity – can be aligned around and feel good about.

Montgomery bravely discusses many topics that, as she asserts, are viewed as soft concepts and are not given the deserved attention.  She talks about passion and enthusiasm of the people working for the company being critical to the firm’s profitability against similar companies in the same market space.  This comes, she feels, from the employees’ ability to see the difference they are making in their day-to-day work.  Through a carefully-selected statement of purpose, every employee considers themselves to be a problem-solver for the customer.  The firm’s purpose helps them understand why they do what they do, why they perform it and price it in a certain way, what market they are serving, and how they are helping each customer.

Montgomery asks,"would customers miss you tomorrow if your company were to disappear?  If they won’t miss you tomorrow, how much do they need you today?”

These are important questions for any leader to contemplate.  It is a mirror that they must be willing to hold up and look at, changing their belief system and behavior, if needed.  Making money does not bring the same type of satisfaction as having an impact on the customers and the industry – something that the likes of Apple, IBM, Gucci, and other examples cited by Montgomery have been able to accomplish.  Montgomery purposefully brings up these iconic companies to inspire the reader to consider how they could revolutionize their industries and make access to products and services easier for more people.

This is why any company should exist, and if they fail to make a difference, they could not dream to be successful in the long run.  The long-term impact is what counts the most in judging the success of a company.  And thinking about the firm in its larger context – current and future – requires the leader to be a true strategist at all times, without exceptions.

Too many of us have lost touch with our ability to bring forth boundless possibilities

“Or as Jean-Paul Sartre, a major exponent of existentialism, put it, “There is a future to be fashioned.” Sartre championed what he called “the possibility of choice,” celebrating the way it positions people to craft identity and define purpose. In his view, it is this fundamental aspect—the possibility of choice—that creates the opportunity to find meaning. “Man first of all exists,” he writes, “encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.” Sartre’s is a universe that creates boundless possibilities for self-definition.” - From The Strategist

Are you surprised to find the above ideas in a book on strategy?  I was. The message of the book really resonates with me, and I believe it speaks to the basic issue that is preventing us and our organizations from advancing further than we could.  We are so wrapped up in the hectic pace of today’s world, marching along in habituated routines trying to get it all done but never getting there.  What we’re failing to perform is “going to the balcony”, as Montgomery refers to it in her book.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300"] Flying Over West Virginia at 3,000 ft.
Source: Bill Fox[/caption]

How can I be so sure of this and why do I think it’s so important?  Because “going to the balcony” or viewing the world from 3,000 feet  - as I like to call it - allows us to see hidden opportunities and possibilities that we otherwise wouldn’t see.

Out of my passion for flying and aerial photography, I have learned to appreciate what possibilites come forward when we take the time to consider and look for them.

For me, it first came to me visually through my flying and photography.  Reflection and “going to the balcony” are now a key part of my daily activities.  My personal practice has transformed my life and career.

I know so much more is possible for us as individuals and as organizations.  Montgomery shares how her journey working at Harvard with leaders from nearly every industry and nation transformed her thinking about strategy.  She now believes that it’s “time to transform the process from a mechanical, analytical activity to something deeper, more meaningful, and far more rewarding for a leader.”

We have been focused on the wrong things trying to improve our organizations

“If leaders lack a clear idea about what they want their businesses to be, they cannot build coherent systems of value creation because they don’t know what they should be designed to do exactly or how their success should be measured. That leaves them to fiddle at the margins of success with generically good practices such as “state of the art” sales management approaches or Total Quality Management. These may be helpful, but they’re not what will help you find an edge and live on it.” - From The Strategist

In my work over the past 20 years of helping organizations introduce change and transformation, one thing has become painfully clear.  Most organizations fail at it miserably and repeatedly.  A few organizations reach some level of success  and make meaningful progress.  But this progress as measured against the likes of Apple, IKEA, and Gucci – shining examples discussed in the book – pales in comparison.

For the past two years, I have been interviewing top thinkers and experts to discover their best ideas and strategies for helping organizations improve.  After more than 30 interviews, it’s interesting to me that none of the 30 strategies are the same.  It’s also interesting that none of the strategies begin with the words Agile, CMMI, Lean, Total Quality Management, etc.  These all fall into the category of “generically good practices” that Montgomery addresses above.

The key theme that has emerged from the interviews in my opinion is the art of asking good questions.  What are those questions?  I’m compiling a listing of all the stated and implied questions from the interviews that I will be publishing in a future blog post.  In the meantime, here are several great questions that have come up from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success:

  • What is your challenge and where to you want to go?
  • What are you doing now, what do you want to achieve, and why do you want to do process improvement at all?
  • What’s your number one biggest problem right now?

Questions slow us down and make us more mindful and deliberative – they help us step back and “go to the balcony” or view our world from 3,000 feet.  Questions help us understand the real problem, they help us envision the ideal end state we are trying to reach, they help us discover new possibilities, and they help us establish intention – moving us towards action.

Purpose is where performance difference start

“Purpose is where performance differences start. Nothing else is more important to the survival and success of a firm than why it exists, and what otherwise unmet needs it intends to fill. It is the first and most important question a strategist must answer. Every concept of strategy that has entered the conversation of business managers—sustainable competitive advantage, positioning, differentiation, added value, even the firm effect—flows from purpose.” - From The Strategist

How many organizations do you know of that truly have a strong purpose statement?  How can we truly start to impact performance if we don’t know the purpose of our business, not in vague terms such as money but in concrete terms that drive all the competitive and strategy components above.  Montgomery argues that the internal costs of an unclear strategy and purpose are great.  With vagueness in purpose, Montgomery states, “employees are left in the dark and guessing.”  We rob our employees of the ability to take decisive and meaningful action in the now to serve our purpose.

We believe The Strategist is a must read book for every leader at every level.  But how can leaders who are "absorbed in day-to-day challenges" find more time to "go to the balcony?"  Please share your comments here.

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