I call this "Objective Overload." This past weekend, elder statesman and retired Gen. Colin Powell cautioned the Obama administration about the dangers of pursuing too many objectives. He knows that the probability of success decreases as the number of strategic objectives increases. The administration is trying to solve a financial crisis, address energy issues, and reform health care and immigration while increasing federal spending at an unsustainable clip and adding to a staggering deficit littered with unfunded programs like Social Security and Medicare. And these are only the domestic issues. We're also fighting two wars and have at least two rogue states that are actively pursuing or have developed nuclear weapons and have threatened to use them against us or close allies. It seems the administration is attempting to do everything in the hopes that something gets done. Even if you end up targeting all the right objectives, your strategy can fail if you target too many of them. An example in the business world is Google ( GOOG). Scott Moritz wrote a great column on July 1 about several problems facing the tech giant and why it's a sell. He quoted the CFO as saying that Google is working on "big, complicated problems, building solutions for decades." That says to me that it's trying to boil the ocean, and that's a recipe for trouble. Google is into everything from smartphones to movies to Internet voice calling to you name it. Contrast this strategy with Apple ( AAPL). Steve Jobs and company tend to focus on one big thing at a time, making sure they get it right. They think it through, making sure the product is intuitive and one that they themselves would use: Mac, iPod, iPhone. Huge successes, timed perfectly, not a bunch of ideas thrown at the wall.
I encountered objective overload after I became the managing director of strategy at a large trading firm. In the wake of our three-year strategic planning, we were green-lighting too many objectives. We didn't have the resources to execute all of our plans, and being the new guy, I did a poor job of deciding which plans to execute and which to place on the back burner. I had a debriefing with the heavies in the firm, and we prioritized all the strategic objectives that supported the vision of the owners and the three-year plan. Then we identified the available resources and matched them to our priorities. We then executed the objectives we could at that moment and looked to add resources that would help us achieve the remaining objectives in short order. Finally, there were objectives that we didn't need to execute at that time, and we were able to put these in a drawer for possible utilization down the road. The U.S. Army deployed to Somalia in the early 1990s with the honorable intentions of feeding that country's poor citizens, a mission unfamiliar to the U.S. military. The Clinton administration wanted to shift the military's core competency from fighting and winning wars to humanitarian operations like Somalia, and years later, Bosnia. Unfortunately, the administration didn't provide the proper resources to these forces. Somalia was a war zone, complete with warlords, but our government didn't want to appear as the aggressor in this operation, so it denied requests for such essentials as armor from commanders in the field.
Then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin turned down the ranking commander's request for tanks, with horrific results later depicted in the book and movie Black Hawk Down. After a fierce battle in Mogadishu, Pakistani U.N. forces had to rescue the U.S. Army, and the world saw the bodies of U.S. Army soldiers dragged through the streets. Why? The troops didn't have the proper resources in place to do the job, and they attempted to perform an operation outside of their core competency. Aspin resigned, and two Delta Force soldiers posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their selfless actions during the battle. Plans with the best of intentions will fail if you don't have the resources to pull them off. As we've seen on the front lines and in the front office, failing to match your resources with your priorities can have tragic consequences. Good leaders want to emphasize taking action. But they also want to emphasize taking action with respect to available resources. Not enough or no resources, even with the best strategy, equals failure.