One problem I often encounter in business (startup or otherwise) is a lack of clarity, a lack of direction.

As I detailed in an earlier post linking your strategic goals to your day to day activities is essential to stay on track, to stay focussed and ultimately to deliver. And while people are often able to construct a set of high level goals and link low level tasks to them it often becomes confused as complexity emerges and the links become tangled and obscure and people lose their way.

At any given point in the day people turn to me and say “What should I be doing now?”

If you get lost, you consult a map.

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In business, your strategy is the map. When you’re in doubt about what to do next you should return to it to consider how best to achieve your goal. If your strategy doesn’t help you achieve your goal, you should ask yourself what purpose does it serve?

But that belies a complexity that often clouds peoples minds when it comes to business — the business map is not flat and one dimensional with a ‘true north’; it is complex and messy and multi-dimensional.

The process is the same however.

To get back on track (even with a map) you need to know where you are now.

There’s no point in looking at the map if you can’t place yourself on it, orient correctly and interpret the map as a model of the terrain. Incorrect assumptions about where you are can undermine your course (of action). If you assume that the road you are standing on is the one that takes you to town, then you can simply follow it home. But if your assumption is wrong then following it will only lead you further astray. Question your assumptions, validate that you are where you think you are.

Then, once you have found yourself on the map, you need to look for your destination.

Validate that your destination is still the correct one. Has the situation changed? Should you change to goal to reflect the change in your circumstances? To stretch the metaphor, is there a storm coming and should you seek shelter immediately instead of heading for a distant port?

Now that you have reaffirmed your destination, look at what lies between you and the destination and figure out the best way to get there. Don’t assume that what you have been doing works best. Look for alternate routes, possible pitfalls and obstacles — identify what is going to stop you getting there.

And finally, develop a set of theories or options to overcome those obstacles. Then it’s just up to you to try it out, see what works and adapt and overcome.

So, if you ever find yourself asking “What do I do next?”, the method is simple:

  1. Current state : review where you are and how you got there
  2. Ideal state / goal / next horizon : determine where you are going, ask yourself if it has changed?
  3. Identify the gap : what is the next step you need to get to your destination?
  4. Identify the problem : what’s going to stop completing that step?
  5. Propose solutions : theorise how you might overcome the problems
  6. Experiment, measure results, learn, adapt and overcome
  7. Repeat with the next obstacle

Note: in the right circumstances you can vary the order of these steps.

For example in complex or chaotic environments it is often better to act first. There’s no point in trying to analyse something that makes no sense — it’s better to act, to experiment and see how your environment responds. When you’re totally lost and have no map, there’s not much point in analysing where you are — it’s better to strike out in a direction and see what you find.

But that’s the subject of a different post…

Written by

A thinker, writer and consultant with a passion for things Lean & Agile : www.nickjenkins.net

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