The Value of Strategic Perspective: From Frank to Picasso


Posted on April 20, 2012 by Blake Leath

"Why, when I point to the moon, do you stare at my finger?"

                                                                                             —Chinese Proverb


Having seen the innards of many organizations, I’m sometimes flabbergasted (as you are) by a periodic myopia that handicaps good decision-making.  

For example, I once observed a $12 million dollar problem with a $60,000 solution get waylaid, nitpicked, delayed and ultimately kyboshed by a 24-year old power-tripping new supervisor in the Finance department.  

And I once sat in a plane at the gate for nearly two hours—along with 184 other passengers—as flight attendants waited for a member of the ground crew’s union to arrive with latex gloves and a trash bag to remove a broken plate that had been found in a seat-pocket in First Class.  There’s a $35,000 problem with a $2 answer if I ever saw one.  

Where tacticians see costs, strategists should strive to see the price of a problem.  

Here are two examples that may help illustrate the point.  The first is from a client (thanks, Mark!) and the second is hearsay—but makes the point nonetheless.


* * *

A company’s new Operations personnel were having difficulty getting a piece of equipment back up and running.  It had changed over the years to a computer-based operating system and, despite bringing in the experts, the equipment continued to break down.

One of the newbies remembered hearing about a guy named Frank who had left as part of a re-org after running the Operations department for a number of years.  Being desperate, they gave Frank a call.  Frank said that, although he was enjoying playing a lot of golf and while it might require him to push back his tee-time, he would see what he could do to help.  The manager said that he would make it worth Frank’s while.

Frank arrived at the plant, went to the unit, and asked everyone to leave the room while he listened to the equipment.  After about ten minutes, he pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and placed an 'X' on the equipment before calling the manager back in the room.  Frank told the manager that if he opened up the shell where he put the X, got down on his knees, and looked up at a 25° angle underneath the pulley, he would find where an arm had broken and that everything would run just fine after the arm was replaced.  In a matter of another fifteen minutes the machine was repaired and running great.

The manager asked Frank how much he owed him.  Frank thought about it for a minute and said, “$100,000.”  The manager was shocked but didn’t want to show it, so he decided to ask Frank to itemize the work and deliver an invoice to him in the morning so he could submit it to his boss for payment.  Not only did he want to pass the buck, the manager thought Frank would see how unreasonable that amount of money was for the short period of time he spent on the job.

The next morning he found a handwritten invoice with Frank’s name and address at the top.  Underneath it read,

One white chalk X......................   $1.00

Knowing where to put it.............. $99,999.00


Total...........................................    $100,000.00


Moral of the Story:

Strategic leaders see the price of a problem rather than the picayune cost of solving it.  As a leader once said to me, “We don’t charge by the bullet, we charge for the kill.”


* * *

Here’s the second story to drive home the importance of having the right strategic perspective (I’ve adopted dollars instead of francs to make the value obvious):

A young mother and her daughter ran into Picasso in a Paris bistro.  “Would you be so kind as to draw a picture of my daughter and me?”

“Certainly,” he replied.  With that, he grabbed a piece of paper and sketched away.  A few minutes later, he handed the mother the paper and smiled warmly.

The mother looked at the drawing and thanked him.

“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed.  Thank you so much.  How can I repay you?”

“You cannot.  The picture you hold in your hands is worth $10,000.”

“$10,000?” she gasped.  “How can it be worth $10,000?  It took you less than ten minutes to do this!”

“Actually, it took me fifty years.”


Excerpts courtesy Cultivating the Strategic Mind, 2007, pp. 88-89.