No matter what function you are responsible for in your organization, if you are going to lead, you need to think about strategy.
Despite the daunting, almost mystical air that often surrounds the word, strategy does not result from super-human intelligence or godlike wisdom.
1) Anticipating the future,
2) Thinking about your choices for that future, and then
3) Planning to create the future you desire.
It is true that crafting an effective strategy depends on clear thinking and thoughtful planning. That means devoting time to thinking effectively; getting out of the daily frenzy to think hard about the future.
While it’s true that some executives seem to have a natural knack for thinking strategically, with some discipline the stratgic thinking and planning process can be learned and applied by most capable executives.
Many times I have witnessed senior executives issue an edict to their middle managers to “Think strategically!” Inevitably, this results in frustration for everyone. The middle managers — consumed by pressing operational tasks — don’t know what top management wants from them or how to produce it.
Charging someone who normally is very task-focused to suddenly “Think strategically!” is like ordering your very gruff neighbor to “Be charming!” Even if the interest and will were there (huge assumptions), the wherewithal is not.
As the diagram below illustrates, as an activity strategy represents the exact opposite of how most managers spend their day: To craft strategy, doing is the least important task.
Strategy, A Process Approach
Strategy can be reduced to five little, but very important, words:
These five words imply a process approach to doing strategy. And doing strategy as a process can be as simple as answering a series of questions.
All good strategies derive their power from the answer to one supremely important question: Why?
Why would you bother to do what you’re thinking of doing, and why should the world care? Thinking about your Purpose explores Why?
- Why does this organization / function exist?
- What unique value does it bring to the world / organization?
- Who would miss it if it did not exist?
- How would the world / organization be different in its absence?
By defining and declaring the Purpose of your organization or your particular function within it, you orient the direction for the future of your organization. You establish a guide for every decision and every action that then helps to determine your future.
With a Purpose in mind, it’s time to consider how you might fulfill it. Before you can plan to drive the future, you must first estimate the course it’s already on by identifying relevant trends that can affect your design for the future. Complete the following activity.
Anticipating the Future
Given the current trajectory of events, we make the following assumptions about how the future looks in each of the following domains:
- Broad Economic Developments
- Demographic and Social Trends
- Regulatory Environment
- Technological Developments
- Competitors (Existing, Potential)
- Changes in Our Own Organization
If you have difficulty completing this work, ask:
- What additional factual information do we need?
- What are the possible logjams to our thinking? Examples:
- Is our perspective trapped in the familiar models of the past?
- Are we limiting ourselves to thoughts that powerful people will find acceptable?
- Are there people who can provide fresh perspectives that need to be included in the process but aren’t involved now? These might include junior people within the organization, customers, suppliers, regulators…
Once you scope the future you areanticipating, consider the choices you have within that world.
What could you do within that landscape? List the possibilities.
After examining what might seem like your nearly endless choices, you likely will be struck with a couple of interesting realizations. 1) You could craft many, many different strategies and courses of action. 2) You simply cannot undertake all the possibilities open to you.
So you must decide what you will do — at this time, and even more importantly, declare what you will not do. To decide means, literally, to cut away courses of possible actions. It is an exercise in limitation.
- Will you specialize not generalize?
- Will you serve a select group of potential customers while intentionally forsaking others?
- Will you aim at the high end not the low end?
- Will you stake your claim on utilitarian value not prestige branding?
- Will you produce and sell every product or service you can, or will you intentionally limit your offerings?
- Will you sell or distribute through boutiques not mass merchandisers?
Strategy is about choosing. In making your choices, you inevitably must decide consciously to give up on chasing opportunities that you find attractive and can very clearly imagine pursuing successfully.
This critical choice-limiting exercise is one that too many very smart and capable people don’t do (or pretend to do) — to their detriment. No person or organization can possibly pursue all their opportunities simultaneously. Though many try. And inevitably fail.
Decide for Now
When approaching a decision and thinking through your strategic choices, hold in your mind a critically important concept that is simultaneously limiting and liberating: Timing.
When making your decisions about what you’ll do and what you won’t, throw out the obvious duds and then divide the remaining options into two groups. Those you’ll pursue:
1) At this time, or,
2) Possibly later (“in the future” / “down the road” / “maybe someday”).
Write the two lists. Then to keep your focus tight, go back to List #1 and see if you can’t move at least a third (maybe far more) of them to List #2.
Acknowledging the limits of the near-term, while recognizing the broad possibilities of the longer term, helps you more easily rein-in your ambitions and desires without foreclosing future possibilities. It helps you to say, yes to this, and no to that, without suffering debilitating regret.
Now that you’ve decided what course you’re going to travel, you have to plan how you’re going to do it. And the first step is always to declare your priorities. What is most important?
The simple matter of deciding and declaring priorities often defeats what would otherwise be a great strategy. The reason is simple: Even a clearly defined strategy always raises more operational to-dos than the organization, given inevitably limited time, resources and funds, can possibly implement well.
When you fail to declare your priorities, then everything is a priority. And therefore nothing is a priority.
Heed this simple truth: You, and even the very largest, most sophisticated organization, cannot do it all. Therefore, you must consciously chose what you will do; and in what order. Simple. Hard. Necessary.
A relatively easy way to think about declaring your priorities is to answer this question: Given that we are heading where we’re heading, what is most important, and given that, what should we do first?
Then do that!
As every marathon runner knows, the most important (and often the hardest) step on the journey is the one out the door. Great strategy means nothing if it’s not appropriately implemented.
To give your strategy power, you must give it energy. To implement, you must take competent action.
Before engaging in activities aimed at fulfilling the strategy, step back and honestly assess your likely capability for putting the ideas into action. You need two essential components: Will and skill.
Will refers to the values and motivation needed to fuel the effort behind the actions. Skill means you have the required knowledge and experience to really pull it off—to deliver on the promise.
Actually implementing usually means dedicating yourself to these important tasks:
1. Selecting capable people to do what needs to be done
2. Communicating expectations for performance
3. Providing necessary resources to accomplish the job (including managerial guidance and support)
4. Monitoring progress and adjusting methods to stay on course (especially breaking old, no longer effective, habits)
Strategy at Its Essence
To crystalize your strategy, complete these thoughts.
1) This organization / function exists to…
2) We serve… [identify you vital constituencies]
3) By… [list your core programs and activities]
4) For the people we serve, we are a better choice than other available alternatives because…
5) Our top three priorities are:
This simple exercise should capture the essence of your strategy in clear terms. If you can’t complete these statements, or if what you’ve written doesn’t sound like your strategy, then your strategy isn’t as clear or well-defined as it needs to be.
Bonus activity: Have your colleagues complete the exercise above and compare your answers. Are you of one mind? Or are there divisions in your visions? If so, how will you resolve them? Might a qualified executive coach help you work through this process effectively?
Strategy: The Bottom Line
An effective strategy results from first disciplined thinking and then disciplined action. These two vital components are as inextricably tied for deploying an effective strategy as hydrogen and oxygen are for making water.
Developing your strategy is the kind of work that’s easy to put off or not do in the busy crush of workaday life. After all, no customer ever will directly demand that you engage in a strategic thinking or planning exercise. But they may well vote to take their dollars elsewhere if you don’t.