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Gustin Partners | August 15, 2013 |

Babe Ruth and Strategic Intent

By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy

In the United States, as the days grows shorter and the nights become crisp, a not insignificant portion of the population turn their attention to the nation’s semi-official sport - baseball. Simultaneously with this redistribution of popular attention is the reluctant refocusing of the executive mind on the fast approaching autumnal rites of budgeting [i.e., where is money going to be spent]. In my last blog I introduced the concept of the exceptionally managed though poorly led enterprise. Such an enterprise can be characterized as very efficiently going nowhere. And herein enters the topic of this blog – executive direction setting [i.e., strategic intent] or lack thereof.

On October first, during the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series [American League New York Yankees vs National League Chicago Cubs] George Herman “Babe” Ruth pointed to the center field bleachers in Wrigley Field, essentially telling the world what he intended to do. On the next pitch, Ruth hit a home run to center field. The sporting world has immortalized this moment with the phrase “calling his shot.” Babe Ruth’s strategic intent was to hit a home run.

A review of public announcements and a summary of legally ascertainable observations [i.e., no insider trading] leads me to conclude that, for the most part, in the commercial sphere executives do not, call their shots. This lack of direction setting, this Marcel Marceau [famous French actor and mime] approach to strategic intent is killing performance.

Jerry Gregoire, the revered former CIO at Pepsi; the transformative CIO emeritus at Dell Computer [during his tenure revenues grew ORGANICALLY from $4 billion to $32 billion] and now über-disruptor of the civil aviation marketspace via the innovations emerging from Redbird Flight Simulations [] recently shared with a group of C-level executives his concern that “fear of termination is still the primary engine of organization evolution.” Coming back to the Babe Ruth metaphor, in many organizations not only have executives become reluctant to “call their shot” and courageously state their intentions as to what they want to accomplish, many persons in positions of supposed power appear reluctant to even swing the bat.

In 1989, respected scholars Gary Hamel and now departed C.K. Prahalad used an article in the Harvard Business Review [July 2005] to introduce the world to a useful framework for understanding executive direction setting – strategic intent. In that seminal work we were enlightened as to the vast difference between the questions:

What can we do with what we’ve got?; and
What would we want to do if we could do anything?

Hamel and Prahalad inferred that the decline in the success of Western enterprises vis a vis Japanese competitors was a direct result of less than aggressive strategic intent. Western companies erroneously anchored their tactics on a static conception of in-place organizational endowments [the classic S.W.O.T. analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats]. Japanese competitors on the other hand possessed and publicized ambitions wildly out of synch with current capabilities. They embarked on unambiguously articulated ten-to-twenty year quests for sector domination. Komatsu was going to “encircle Caterpillar.” Canon called their shot to “beat Xerox.”

The reason Babe Ruth has had 27 books written about him [more than any other figure in sports] has less to do with the specifics of his accomplishments and more to do with the circumstances surrounding those accomplishments. Ruth was a walk-off-the-street human being. He emerged from a troubled childhood attending St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquents, Incorrigibles, and Wayward Boys in Baltimore. He is viewed as the patron saint of American possibility. Poorly educated, “only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization” according to teammate Harry Hooper, Ruth became the epitome of baseball - all because he was able to do one thing better than anyone else. That is strategic intent.

What is the one thing your organization can do better than anyone else?


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