Strategy, when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings”
[Cassius, in Julius Caesar]

With the unwavering look and political persuasion of Pasha Antipov from Dr Zhivago, a chap I once chatted to over a pint some thirty years ago uttered a phrase that for some reason I’ve never forgotten: “every middle class man wants to be the engine-driver of society”.

I now think he put the comment in the bank for me for when I read the latest white paper from IFMA (International Facilities Management Association), “Redefining the Executive View of Facility Management“, helpfully publicised by the excellent Workplace Insight . It says that FM needs to either be strategic or become irrelevant. The usual aerated stuff like “promoting core competencies” predictably gets in the way of saying it as it is – FM wants to be in the suit suite so it’s not told what to do all the time.

In general terms, I’ve never understood the craving of just about every business function to “be strategic”, or (expressed as the HR community obsesses) for “a seat at the table”. It reflects archaic structures and power relationships. It pessimistically declines to consider more creative paths to influence. It assumes the benefit of rights but ignores the requisite burden of obligation. And it assumes unbounded freedom, but overlooks the imposition of restraint – it’s not all glory. Like driving the engine.

Recollecting the spirit of the conversation all those years ago, I don’t think Pasha would mind me adding that there is something of an entitled, bourgeois quality to the insistence too.

The reality is that FM is – and always will be – operational, and should be proud of it. It’s not a bad thing. It defines and strengthens its relevance.

Keeping the lights on, maintaining buildings, ensuring workplaces remain inspiring, guaranteeing people and assets remain safe and secure, feeding people healthily, managing large operating costs responsibly – none of these are, or will ever be, strategic. They are not even tactical. Yet they make a significant, in many cases vital, and in some instances a business-critical contribution to an organisation.

Because that’s it. It’s about making a contribution, and doing it damn well. With empathy, common sense, commitment and energy. Looking for better ways to do it, with the occasional (usually accidental or expedient) innovation. Talking to people confidently, like adults and equals – not in overbloated business guff. Looking for opportunities, as opposed to order-taking. Acting quickly and responsibly. Doing what’s promised. Focussing on the detail, sweating the small stuff. Taking pride in what is achieved, and using it as a baseline to improve further.

Acknowledgement and respect will accrue throughout an organisation to a confident and assured function happy in its contribution. There is nothing complicated in all of this, but it’s clearly not easy because too few do it well. For most, there is still a long way to service excellence. Energy focussed on a seat at the table is misplaced, and will only undermine the progress of FM. It really is time to shed the neurosis.

This does not in any way negate developing operational strategies (that’s not “being strategic”), philosophically contemplating the meaning of great service, conceiving of new philosophies of service, or simply having great, deep, insightful helpful conversations about FM. Being operational does not mean being trivial. The same intellectual rigour is required of FM as of all other business support functions, as part of understanding why it exists and how it can improve.

At this point I could do one of those naff “3 C’s” things that litter the ether. The 3 C’s of FM: Competence, Confidence, Contribution. I might write a white paper. But then again.


3 thoughts on “Strategy, when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

  1. Neil, I don’t believe this is an ‘either/or’ – yes, operational delivery of good FM is vital. But so is strategic alignment. As Jim Ware and I argued in the RICS reports “Raising The Bar”, strategy is essentially about competitive advantage (right back to the origins of ‘strategy’ in military operations, and Sun Tzu’s ‘art of war’!). If one takes a wide definition of FM, and the provision of workplaces and services, that delivery can give an organization a competitive advantage. Or not…it is a strategic decision to invest in great workplaces and related services, for sound business reasons. For example, in the “war for talent” between tech companies on the US West Coast. Or superior client services suites in a city Law firm, employing well-paid ex-BA cabin crew… I could offer many examples. I’m sure you could in your own business.

    It is possible to do the wrong things, operationally competently…if operational decisions do not follow a strategy which is aligned with the business. For example, blindly trying to re-create the Google office in a company with a totally different employee profile, may be operationally excellent, but not add value to the company…FM may be misaligned.

    But FM, on its own, is not enough – the total corporate infrastructure must work together to support the strategic direction of the ‘core business’. The field of “workplace” (bringing together real estate, fit-out, FM, IT/comms and HR policy) comes closer to being a “strategic” function than what many think of as “FM”. Whomever brings these functions together, to truly add value to the core business, may be recognised as “strategic” and sufficiently important to be brought into Board-level discussions.

    Some organisations that have created an integrated “enterprise support” function are getting close to the above. Michael Porter set out where such ‘infrastructure’ functions contribute to the “value chain” back in the 1980s. It takes some time (clearly) for these things to become reality!

    Until that happens though, “FM” will always just follow the lead of a Board director, and as you rightly suggest, will not have proved the need to sit on the top table.

  2. Neil,

    You are very generous to make the FM role noble.

    The key components to actually achieving nobility, as you note, are “empathy, common sense, commitment and energy” – the “feelings” in your title. But the marching orders for FM, the metrics for performance, are rarely ever about feelings. The passion of the FM gets suppressed in the daily routine to implement and manage the unfeeling “standards.”

    FM’s must get ground down by the gripes from all directions from those they serve. It must take courage to perform in a way to find “pride in what is achieved, and us[e] it as a baseline to improve further.”

    I like John Hagel’s focus on the power of “passion” in the workplace, yet moving it up to the “suit suite” as a model to engage all seems daunting.


  3. I completely agree with the sentiment that the objective of being at the top table, of being seen as ‘strategic’, is unhelpful. But I agree with Paul that understanding the organisation’s strategy for success, and building to contribute to that in a ‘strategic’ way is vital, whether you work in HR, IT, FM or Finance. I think that part of the problem is that people cling onto the word ‘strategic’, like a drowning man to driftwood, because they think it will somehow magically make them more likely to be seen in a good light by the Powers That Be. This is corporate life for you 😉

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