The Meyer Group - Blog

Another practical example of string theory, a bit different but very relevant, comes from my friend Mort.

Mort is a serial CEO who, at retirement age, sold his most recent company. We had lunch last week so he could pose a really interesting question.

Mort had just been to see his doctor and then gone to a school reunion. The doctor suggested that his current good health is probably going to continue for another 30 years. His high school mates (including three doctors) had told him that at their age he should be happy to get two more healthy years. When lunch arrived Mort asked me how I'd approach this problem.

This is not my normal business topic. I've been writing about problem solving, figuring out how to address and resolve really difficult problems in our businesses. He reads my work, and wanted to discuss how to apply it here. I like and respect Mort, and I like and respect difficult problems. So we got into string theory.

The basic idea is simple enough - there are two answers to the question of how to open a bag of grain that is sewn shut. You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult to move and it gets more so as you jerk harder. However, pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have success. The solution to get what you want isn't to pull harder. The solution is to choose the right end of the string to pull.

We spent most of lunch looking at the different ends of the string for this problem. Trying to decide which doctors are right was the difficult end. The more Mort relied on the answers from Doctors, the more knotty it all got. The right end of the string turned out to be Mort choosing to look at how he felt about his own abilities. When he looks at his sense of himself, he feels capable and ready to act from that. This end of the string is tied to his internal, primary, reference. When Mort looks at his sense of himself, he feels capable and ready to act from that. He is confident in himself.

The right end of the string became this question:
"If you were 18 years old, and had this 30 years question, what would you do?"

What made this work for Mort is that he put himself in two positions. One is that he is governor of himself. When he decides that he is able to craft his future, he works from his strengths. Those strengths have helped him create and run successful businesses. He's pulling on the string from a position of internal strength. For Mort that is a thinking model.

The second position is that when he gets proactive, the string immediately feels easier for him. When he is reactive, it does not work as well, the string feels tangled. He senses this more than thinks it; it's a feeling model for him.

Taking a half hour to choose the right end of the string allowed Mort to choose the right path for moving forward with his career. It made the decisions much simpler.

What's his choice? He picked up his coffee and said: "I better start a new company."

Following on from the previous post, let's take a look at some practical examples of using String Theory (as I called it) in real business examples. This one is about unraveling company politics. Organizations have politics and they get knotty. Here's a case where we worked out a better answer.

Liz called with a difficult problem that came from success. In the middle of her career in high tech, she'd joined an old line financial services company. They asked her to help them build partnerships with 'new wave' companies. She was perfect for them, and a challenge. The company management (lets call it FinServ) chose her because she is part of their future. The tension comes because she is a fast mover in an industry that has shifted slowly. Not all of the company executives have the same bias to action. And Liz called me because that was suddenly a problem.

It started when Liz started to land customers with names and valuations that were on the same level as FinServ. Then she had a phenomenon that she didn't expect - competition from within her company. It seemed that everyone wanted to meet with the customer, and to work their own projects with the client. Executives and managers from all over FinServ were calling her customer.

If that happens once or twice, it is not a big deal. However, the client's top managers were getting multiple calls each week. Worse, the offers and proposals often conflicted with each other. FinServ was competing with FinServ.

For a short while it was flattering for the client, then it became a nuisance. Liz started to be concerned that FinServ looked more than a little disorganized. Her worry was that FinServ's credibility was challenged and so was hers. She was apprehensive that she might lose the customer if this continued.

Liz isn't a part of the informal power structure at FinServ and she had limited organizational authority. She wanted to fix this issue. It would be difficult to arrange, but she wanted to sit down with FinServ's President. She wanted him to mandate that contact with the customer be co-ordinated with her team. Divisional independence is valued at FinServ. Her request would be a hard sale and might be seen as a power grab.

Liz and Finserv had a difficult problem. I like and respect difficult problems. So we got into string theory.

The basic idea is simple enough - there are two answers to the question of how to open a bag of grain that is sewn shut. You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult and gets more so as you tug harder. Pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have success.

The solution isn't to pull harder. The solution is to choose the right end to pull.

Choosing sides in FinServ would be very difficult, and the string was clearly going to knot up if she promoted one internal group over another. The wrong end of the string was to fight politics with more politics inside FinServ. Choosing a side there was very difficult. That is usually a sign that we are on the wrong end of the string.

However, not trying to solve this was worse. She might lose the customer. That would be bad for FinServ, and bad for Liz.

She decided that the right end of the string would be to focus solely on what is best for the customer, not FinServ. So she sat down and laid out what it would mean for the customer if FinServ burned them off. She showed how FinServ could best support that customer. Not from her company's point of view, but from how the customer saw it. Her new plan was to go to FinServ's president and say: "Here is what is right for the customer, not for any one group in FinServ. Would you sign onto this plan if it helps the customer first? If it includes a primary point of contact?" She chose to pull the string from the customer perspective, not the FinServ perspective. It was a risk, but it felt to her like the correct risk to take.

It meant that she'd ask the CEO to tell every manager or executive in FinServ that the company was going to support a customer first plan. She'd have to remain completely neutral by focusing solely on what was best for the customer.

Would this be easy? Probably not. Would it be easier than trying to manage the FinServ political landscape? No question. Starting with the customer needs and making them the only criteria was right end of the string.

You already know that because you are wise, experienced and successful it doesn't make meetings better. This quick note, prompted by my friend Jonathan, is about a practical structure that you can use that can dramatically shorten and improve your meetings: Success criteria.

Success Criteria
This comes from a technique that our firm uses to keep complex projects on target. I hate time wasting sessions, so we use this structure to get more value from less time in meetings. It's simple. It works.

We all use agendas, and what an agenda describes is the topic. This note is about much more. What I'm asking you to do is go further and to describe the outcome you want from your meeting. Before you start the meeting, answer a simple question: "When we are done in an hour, what will have changed?" The answer to that is your success criterion for that meeting.

The discipline is to have the success criteria in your mind before the meeting starts. Let me be clear: If you haven't defined success for the meeting before you start, you deserve to have a mediocre meeting. And you probably will. What I am asking you to do, what works, is to know how to define success around where you are going before you ask your team to sit down together.

TV or Conversation?
Let's consider two different kinds of meetings. One is where you want to disseminate information. This is like broadcast TV. You're the host, and they're the audience receiving information from you.

The second is a meeting where you are looking for buy-in. For that you want engagement, and the sense of dialog can help. Think of this as conversation mode, where you talk with the team, not at them, to generate acceptance of an idea.

For the broadcast meeting (TV mode) the success criteria are easy. It could be as simple as: "When we are done, I'll have told you about the quarterly numbers."

For the conversation (engagement mode) meeting your success criteria might be: "When we're done, you'll know next quarter's targets, and I'll ask you to commit to helping us all meet them."

Putting Success Criteria Into Your Meeting
To implement this success criteria strategy, schedule a meeting. Then ask yourself what you want to see changed by the end by the end of that meeting. For instance, do you want your team to have:


  • Learned something specific?
  • Bought into something?
  • Developed a solution that they can all support?
  • Told you something specific that you need to know?


Whatever the answer, make it measurable and then use it to fill in the blank: - When we are done here at 3 pm, __________ will have happened. Then tell the team as you open the meeting.

For a bit more effectiveness, put your success criteria on the whiteboard, and ask if everyone is OK with it. Wait for their answer.

You get even more effectiveness when, at the end of the meeting, you go back to what you wrote on the whiteboard and say: - When we started an hour ago, this was the target. Are you comfortable that we made it?

And wait for the answer.

This whole thing will feel incredibly clumsy the first time you do it. Then the second through fifth times, it will just feel kind of clumsy. But by the end of three to six cycles of this you'll love the results.

Next: Try it. If you like it, thank Jonathan.

You've probably told people that finding problems is a good thing. Problems indicate that you're making progress. And you also know that solving problems quickly is just as good.

I'm going to assume that you don't need advice on how to make problems. This article is about a practical method to solve your problems more quickly. It may sound odd to you, but I'm going to ask you to pull your own strings here.

An Example: Starting with A Knotty Problem
A few years ago we were involved in a messy competitive sales situation. We were bidding to provide consulting services to a telephone company in the Eastern United States. This company (we'll call it Telco) was trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of operations by $100 million dollars within 6 months. That was to pave the way to acquire another phone company by the end of the year. The mandate to cut that cost was coming from government regulators, and the Telco executive team was serious about making all of this happen.

Telco asked for bids from several consulting firms including mine. The specifications were very loose, the project ill defined, and the procurement process had become a complete mess for Telco. They had multiple bids, all so different that the offers couldn't be compared to each other. It was beginning to appear that it would take most of the year just to choose the consulting firm.

Choosing the Right End of the String
Now to the string. Next time you are in a grocery store look for a bag of flour or grain that is sewn closed by one of those strings that you tug to open the bag.

You've seen this. When you pull on one end of the string that secures the bag, the knots get tighter and the string gets more intractable. You're pulling on the wrong end of the string.

However, when you go to the other end of the string, you can open the bag with one easy pull. Solving that problem is much quicker and easier when you start at the right end.

This isn't just for bags of flour or grain. The metaphor applies to problems like the one at Telco and perhaps in your own business. (This metaphor comes from Walter Method Messages by Florence Stranahan.)

The String at Telco
All of us, vendors and the Telco team, were clearly pulling on the wrong end of the string. How could we tell? When we pulled harder, the problem just got knottier. We consultants were proposing apples and oranges by trying to define the project to match our own strengths. The purchasing and evaluating teams at Telco could not untangle a way to move forward. The team at Telco was getting frustrated.

So was I. I wanted to get on the right end of the string, hand it to the client, and have them pull it. At that point I was willing to lose the contract if it was best for getting the Telco merger accomplished. The senior Telco executive who owned this project told me that she was feeling just as frustrated. So on a Friday afternoon I called and made a radical suggestion. She agreed to it in about a minute.

On Monday I had Jan, the most aggressively independent and neutral facilitator I knew, in a conference room at Telco. Jan's travel and visit were on my nickel, but both she and I were clear that she did not care who paid her. Her job was to find the right end of the string no matter who won the contract. She was hired to advocate for Telco.

Jan had only one directive: To interview the top 12 Telco leaders and find the one string that was best for Telco's business. Not best for a vendor, best in the view of the Telco leaders. It didn't matter if that string favored a vendor, all that mattered was that Telco could look at the interview results and know that these were the right success criteria for starting and finishing the project.

You could argue that Telco should have already done this, and you'd be right. And you know that large organizations sometimes just can't seem to get to that. I was hiring Jan to help them do something that otherwise wasn't going to get done.

If you are leading a team like this, or facing a knotty problem like this, you are not alone. The solution is not in pulling the string harder and more heroically. The answer is in finding the right end of the string.

Finding the Right End of the String
Jan started on Monday and by Friday of that week she had interviewed all 12 key leaders in person and had the 11 of them in the conference room with the sponsoring executive and I. Jan asked the Telco team to look at the various success criteria she pulled from the interviews. She put all the relevant criteria on a whiteboard. (This is a process that my firm uses often.) She asked the team to select the success criteria that were right for Telco, not for the vendors. She then stood back and let them argue about which one or ones were right for them.

Jan was telling the team to find the correct end of the string. In the prior 9 months they hadn't done this. Now it was time, and in two hours, they chose three criteria on which they all agreed.

This wasn't fast or pretty, but Jan facilitated a conversation that helped the Telco team define a scope and plan that was the best for where they were. I took notes for the group, but the Telco team did all the work.

Did It Work?
Yes, but what worked here? The correct end of string was defined by the customer needs, not anyone else' ideas. It seemed like a flash of the blindingly obvious. This was the right end of the string for this project.

The senior executive took my notes to her office, read them, and immediately directed (not asked) Jan to start work on making the plan happen. Since Jan worked for me, the competitive bidding was over. The project started that night and we all worked through the weekend and the rest of the month. In effect, the bidding nightmare ended the moment the team chose the right end of the string to pull.

In 6 months Telco satisfied the regulators. Three months later they bought the other company. Pulling the string from that end, the customer's definition of success, was what worked.

You could read this as a victory for my firm, and we were happy to do the work. However the real victory was for Telco. They made the choice to stop pulling on the wrong end and to go find the right end of the string. What was the right end? It was choosing the success criteria for their own business irrespective of the tangential issues. Once they agreed on the criteria that helped Telco position for buying the other company, the answers were as simple as opening that bag of flour. The right end of the string was clear once they stopped straining on the wrong end.

The Winning Strategy
What is the strategy you might take away from this? Start with this idea: - If the problem that you are trying to solve seems complicated, knotty, and unclear, you are pulling on the wrong end of the string.

If you want to find the right end: - Write down your success criteria and then eliminate everything else. You'll find the right end of the string right in front of you.

Is it a flash of the blindingly obvious? Good.

Next: Heroism is fun, but don't you want to prevent it instead?