Has anyone seen Kernel?” “Not since he jumped in the pool after the bar closed.”
It wasn’t the best way to start Nimbus Co.’s first annual strategic-planning retreat. It was 9 a.m. at the Black Fly Conference Centre, our four-star spa in the woods. Our management team was gathered there to discuss new directions and priorities. Things had started well with a wine and cheese the night before, but losing our excitable vice-president was not on the agenda.
As the search for Kernel started, I reflected on the management meeting that had brought us here. We’d been discussing a new appliance, “Hotplate for Him,” targeting men who can’t figure out a stove. Kernel and Wanda wanted to push it hard for Christmas. Scanelli and I argued for focusing on the components division, now that aerospace is showing signs of life. Betty Cash, our controller, suggested we build cash reserves to three times revenue.
We were getting nowhere because we had no long-term vision. That night, I dug up our most recent five-year plan. It referred to the potential for free trade with the U.S. and an exciting new technology called fax. I figured it was time for an update.
But we couldn’t find Kernel anywhere. Reluctantly, I asked the team to focus on our work. “He’ll turn up eventually,” I said. “Should I cancel one place for lunch?” Betty asked.
“Let’s move on,” I said, pulling out the agenda I’d drafted. “The first item is a discussion of where our industry is going. Scanelli, it’s your ball.” “Thanks, Cumulo. I’ve prepared a few slides…” “No,” I interrupted. “We’re here to talk with each other, not at each other.”
Shaken, Scanelli delivered his message in three minutes. That should teach him to read the whole memo next time.
Basically, he said that consumer markets are flat and retailers are squeezing our margins. He suggested we look to industrial markets, in which quality and dependability mean more than price. I thanked him and opened the floor to questions.
“If we’re going to talk quality and dependability, I need new machines,” said Wirtz. “We don’t have the money,” said Betty. “I think that’s one of the things we’re here to decide,” said Wanda. “Doesn’t anyone have a question?” I pleaded.
The rest of the agenda was open, so I walked over to the flip chart. “What I’d like to do is capture your ideas for new products,” I said. “Then we’ll prioritize and…” “We need to do a SWOT analysis first,” insisted Wanda. I’d hoped not to consider our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, for fear the answers would be too obvious or too painful. But I was pleasantly surprised: the team came up with several strengths, and no one called me a weakness.
Just then, a mud-caked Kernel crashed into the room. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I went out for a run and fell into a bog. And the more I struggled to get free, the deeper I slipped into the muck.” “Man,” said Scanelli, “that sounds familiar.”
“So what did you do?” asked Wanda. “I stopped struggling,” said Kernel. “I looked deep inside and focused. Then I took a few baby steps forward till I found solid ground. I slowly eased my way out of the bog and onto the path. But by this time I didn’t know which way to go…”
“Enough,” I said. “Kernel, I’m glad you’re alive. But we’re trying to talk business here…” “Wait,” Wanda spoke up. “I think there’s a message in his story. What happened next?”
“Well, the hotel daycare group came along and pointed my way back,” said Kernel. “One of those four-year-olds had a great sense of direction.” “Maybe we can we hire him as a guest speaker,” grumbled Wirtz.
That was the end. I’d hoped to spend the afternoon on competitive assessments, but the mood was shot. We played water polo till dinner.
At home the next day, I told Cirrus the whole story. “Of course your meeting tanked,” she sighed. “I count at least seven mistakes you made in running it.” “Like what?” I said. “Just ask your readers,” said Cirrus. “They’ll know.”