Stall Points interested me because of its premise—often companies stall because their most cherished assumptions aren’t challenged.  The authors cite repeated examples of companies who stall and fail to grow.  The companies are surprised, shocked, and often the fall is precipitous.

I happen to work for one of those companies who has experienced (or is experiencing) a stall point.  The drop in enrollment in Catholic schools has certainly signaled a stall.  The authors offer suggestions to diagnose a potential stall and to challenge a company’s assumptions.

Perhaps the most valuable method is to divide up a group of stakeholders into two groups to create two competing “premortems.”  The first group is told that the company’s sales will triple in the next 10 years.  Their task is to explain why the company grew so fast.  The other group is told that the company doesn’t exist in 10 years.  Their task is to explain why.

When the group of western Catholic school superintendents gathered in Phoenix in January, we conducted this exercise.  Ulimately, the premortem exercise challenges you to articulate the essential factors of your work and to measure your time (and priorities) against those factors.

Looking back, it’s easy to identify disruptions that have contributed to the stalled growth of Catholic schools—loss of teaching sisters and vocations, drop in Mass attendance, smaller families, demographic shifts to the suburbs, aging buildings, increased costs in salaries and benefits, etc.  The book challenges school leaders to identify external factors, strategic factors, and organizational factors.  I believe that most Catholic schools stop at the external disruptions identified above and fail to examine their lack of strategic planning and organizational weaknesses.  We can’t allow macro disruptions to cloud our vision of strategic and organizational failures which can be reversed.

In fact, the authors posit that 87 percent of stalls are due to controllable factors such as Premium Position Captivity (failure to shift tactics in response to the advent of a low-cost competitor), innovation management breakdown (failure to achieve growth in new products), Premature Core Abandonment (failure to explore growth areas in the core business), and Talent Bench Shortfall (lack of skilled replacements).

What the authors do extremely well is introduce cognitive psychology to their analysis.  Looking at blind spots and mental models underlying assumptions is a worthwhile pursuit in strategic planning.  For example, they argue, “The mental models of management teams are constructed of sets of assumptions about markets, competitors, and technologies that help speed decision-making under conditions of ambiguity.  When these underlying assumptions behind company strategy begin to erode, however, the shared mental model of the senior team can first gradually, then suddenly, depart from reality. Once undermined, the mental models of the senior team lead to a peculiar isolation and resistance to new external market and strategy realities. (Chapter 4)

Certainly some of these models sound familiar.  Departures from reality?  Isolation and resistance to new realities?  Does any of this sound familiar?  Stall Points will challenge you to look at your school in new light.