November 15, 2012

Aye, it's the Viking life for me!



I never liked the Bus concept Jim Collins writes about in his books. He asserts that your business is like a bus. According to Collins, you (the business leader) are the bus driver, and you need to “get the right people on your bus”. I think this concept is flawed and demeaning. I propose an alternative analogy for your business – the Viking Longship!

Who wants to sit on a boring bus?
Let’s consider the bus analogy for a moment. According to Collins, you’re the business leader sitting at the steering wheel of the bus. You’re in control. You’re in charge. You know where you want to go, and you are the one making it all happen. Meanwhile all your people are sitting in the seats behind you. You may have “the right people sitting in the right seats” but with the Jim Collins bus analogy it seems like they are mere passengers on your journey. I find this analogy to be rather demeaning for everyone else in the company.

The bus analogy fits the “CEO is the hero” archetype that the business media loves to worship. The way the media writes about it, you’d think the CEO does it all themselves!
While the CEO role is undoubtedly important, studies show that a CEO only contributes about 15% of the difference to overall company’s performance - for better or for worse. Think about that the next time you scan the business magazine covers and see pictures of “Hero CEO’s” staring back at you.

I’d rather be a Viking!
Ignoring the brutality of the era and the obvious masculine stereotype, I propose that the Viking Longship is a superior analogy for your business.

Let’s begin with a bit of history (greatly simplified for the purposes of this illustration):
The Vikings were Scandinavian explorers, warriors and merchants who raided, traded and plundered their way around Europe and Asia between the 8th to 11th centuries. They were the global superpower of their era. There is evidence to suggest they discovered North America long before Columbus arrived.

The Viking Longships were fitted with oars along the length of the boat as well as a sail on a single mast. The sail enabled Longships to cover long distances at sea with minimal effort, then the oars were deployed when near the coast or when heading up a river.

The Longships were built and owned by coastal Viking villages and conscripted by the Viking King to build a powerful naval force. Every village had to deliver one ship and crew of approximately 50 men. A key advantage was that every crew had strong tribal bonds and sense of loyalty and duty to each other.

The Longship skipper used the sun and the stars and a primitive form of compass to navigate, and steered the Longship using a side mounted steering oar. Longships were not fitted with benches. When rowing, the crew sat on movable chests that contained their weapons and personal possessions. (Sounds a lot like a typical office workstation)

Because ships had shallow draft hulls; they could sail in shallow waters, allowing them to invade far inland by paddling up rivers. Longships were also double-ended, allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around. Thus, the Vikings could perform highly efficient hit-and-run attacks on coastal settlements, in which they could beach the boat, conduct a raid, and then leave rapidly before a counter-offensive could be launched.

Vision, Strategy and Business Execution – the Viking way.
Firstly, the skipper creates the Vision to motivate their crew (colonize a country, get rich, prove yourself in battle etc). They keep talking about this vision to motivate their crew, especially during the tough times (sailing through scary storms, running low on supplies, injuries and setbacks in battle etc)

Secondly they craft a Strategy to realize that vision; they secure the right resources to do the job, navigate the Longship to the target destination via the safest and most efficient route, and craft a battle plan for how they intend to attack the local population.

Everyone in the crew is vital to the Execution of the Strategy. They perform many different roles during the sailing, rowing, and raiding components of each expedition. They must work together to achieve their goals and hold each other accountable for performance – there is no room on the boat for any slackers when rowing or when engaged in battle! They get aligned by rowing and marching in cadence.

The crew is never quite sure what challnges they will encounter on each expedition so they continually review and adapt the strategy to meet changing conditions. They get very clear on the 1 thing they need to focus on right now - every step of the way. Performance is rewarded by the fact that they all get a share of the plunder of each expedition.

I will flesh out this analogy more sometime (I’m sure there is a book in here somewhere), but hopefully you are starting to get the picture.

Sorry Jim, but I disagree with you on this one. I’d far rather be a Viking warrior than a passenger on your boring bus any day!

Stephen Lynch
Chief Operating Officer - Global Operations - RESULTS.com