Just Thinking
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Just Thinking

Living In The Cross Hairs Of Business

A Primer For The Third Decade Of The 21st Century

Photo by Upal Patel on Unsplash

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” — Sir Winston Churchill

Under Pressure

Whatever size, type or age of your business right now the pressures are the same — increase performance at the lowest cost and without risk. Do that while ensuring investment (or revenue) and avoid being disrupted, outspent or dismissed.

And That’s Not All

You will be answering a bunch of irritating questions on top.

  • Where are we headed?
  • What is the result we want?
  • What are the challenges we must solve?
  • What are the opportunities we must exploit?
  • How do we get there? — When?
  • What needs to change? — Why?
  • How do I take my people with me?
  • Do I have the capability to get it done?
  • Do we have the capacity to get it done?
  • How do we know it was the right decision(s)?

“In reality strategy is actually very straightforward. You pick a general direction and implement like hell.” — Jack Welch

Results = Execution

As Sir Winston Churchill said, and he knew, that results are pretty important too. We can’t get results without doing work. Implementation. Delivery. Execution. Action.

That’s the IDEA.

The challenge for business, especially in more connected and digitalised businesses is to execute as one. It demands a lot more than luck. It calls for weapons-grade orchestration. Dependencies exist everywhere — and the more complex the business — the more dependencies there are.

But first comes strategy.

Strategy On Purpose

We are approaching the third decade of the 21st Century. In the western world right now it can feel like we are going backwards. We feel like we are headed towards a less civilised society.

“The greatest punishment for being unwilling to rule is being ruled by someone worse than oneself.” — Socrates

There’s a weird tension in the world today because, at the same time as the bonkers, business leaders are starting to promote more ethical standards and sustainable ambitions. They even have a name for it — the purpose driven business.

“Creating value for humanity should not be an afterthought but a core business strategy.” — Anonymous

This concept raises more questions for the business leader when it comes to strategy. How do we become more ethical, sustainable and environmentally conscious — and stay in business?

  • We, the consumers can vote not to buy products that display arrogance, disrespect and waste. We are.
  • We can march and protest publically about flagrant abuse of land and people’s resources. We are.
  • And we can put pressure on businesses to rethink their supply chains to remove inequity, slavery and unethical practice. We are.

But there’s no doubt we could be doing a whole lot more. We must.

And In The Future?

The ‘future’ is always going to focus the attention and preoccupy people’s minds. It will always be an important construct. It’s powerful because it forces the business to think. It has the ability to inspire or strike fear.

Of course, we never reach the future — we can’t ever determine or guarantee it. But nonetheless imagining what it looks like and how we get there is an important tool for the business.

“I believe that people make their own luck by great preparation and good strategy.” — Jack Canfield

Being prepared for the future is the new strategy. It’s deeply useful. It means being ready for what may come because you cannot predict what that might be. Being prepared sits right up there with having some idea what you want it to look like.

The Preparedness Mindset

Being prepared begins with having the right mentality — the mindset to think that way. A state of mind. A mindset of preparedness is a rarity. And gaining one isn’t as simple as it sounds.

The Mind. It Matters

It may sound obvious but being strategic is a critical mindset. Mindsets take years to develop. Mindsets come from experience (failure) objectivity (noticing) contextual awareness (consciousness) and patience (determination).

“Strategy is style of thinking, a conscious and deliberate process, an intensive implementation system, the science of insuring future success.” — Pete Johnson

They will have witnessed countless situations where a lack of preparedness has caused consequences. That’s how our experience shapes us in general — and how minds become set. How we have experienced, and as a result learned anything, is never the same journey for everyone. What happens is that after a while a series of random situations causes us to have an epiphany of some sort.

Be prepared.

Strategic Or Tactical? That Is Not The Question.

A strategy is what emerges once all the questions above (and more) have been answered. And annoyingly, there’s never a right or wrong answer to them. Some decisions are plain stupid but mostly it comes down to whether there’s a better or worse outcome. And it’s hard to forecast.

The answers to every question can be tactical or strategic. If tactical they will be short term but important. If strategic then longer term and likely more significant in terms of investment.

“Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, strategy is useless.” — Morris Chang

Being strategic can be life or death for leaders. Sometimes even more important than that. Longer term thinking usually (but not always) drives more sustainable and successful outcomes. But because the pressure is always on — the ‘quick wins’ are always a feature.

We have to do stuff.

“Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art.” — Peter Drucker

Hey Language. We Have A Problem

Recognising that the business needs to change course is good. But it’s often the start of fresh problems.

Many things lead to the need for change.

  • The business realises it’s at risk.
  • Innovation gets hailed as a requirement.
  • New leadership demands it.
  • A transformation program gets launched.
  • The strategy dictates it — all of the above.

Whatever it gets called the definition of the challenge is often the villain.

“Sound strategy starts with having the right goal.” — Michael Porter

Because business is so interconnected (and interdependent) any change at all can be disproportionately significant. Transformation means reinventing/redesigning the business. If not well defined and understood then beware all who enter here.

“When your headlights aren’t on, the best rearview mirror available isn’t likely to improve your driving.” — Marth Rogers

It’s Not Hard To Comprehend

We are all consumers.

We buy stuff. Especially from brands that get us. If they get us then it’s clear. Everything they do shows up in our space (face) in the right way, with the right message and at the right time.

If they don’t then they need to fix that.

“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.” — Charles de Gaulle

It’s Not Easy To Fix

It means the business must innovate (change). Whatever it takes. Quite likely a total redesign of how they show up.

It will likely take an overhaul of their product or service. It will probably take a big shift in how they make me feel about my purchase — long after my purchase. This is a big deal.

“Always start at the end before you begin.” — Robert Kiyosaki

Business needs to do this consistently. Especially if they intend to stay ahead of all the others that are also vying for my attention.

The Devils. The Details

A vision without a strategy is an illusion. Aiming to achieve it without a plan is a delusion.

Making Plans

The plan is what you get when you’ve made all the decisions you can. You know you have one because you are able to draw it on a board with sufficient belief that your audience looks excited. Or scared to death that they no longer have an excuse to go deliver on it.

“A vision and strategy aren’t enough. The long-term key to success is execution each day. Every day.” — Richard M. Kovacevich

The challenge with making plans from strategic thinking is deciding what not to do. This fact will probably disappoint many people on the team. But that’s why Leadership is a lonely place.

“You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time.” — Jeroen De Flander

To execute the plan (strategy) there needs to be a plan. And people to execute. You wouldn’t believe how often neither of them exists.

We appreciate that people find plans tough. That’s because they tend to be poorly formed. Most are opaque and impenetrable. Why can’t they be inspiring and written by humans? Getting a strategy in place demands simplicity and that demands inspiring leaders. You wouldn’t believe how often neither of them exists.

Differentiation Through Strategy

A successful strategy is always easy to spot. The business is being successful. You can see it in the people, in the culture and in the numbers. Successful strategies involve being different from the crowd. To gain attention from our consumers and that’s not easy.

“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want” — Steve Jobs.

Different doesn’t come with instructions. You have to make it happen yourself. It requires creativity (in all its forms and leadership. Woven throughout this is sheer hard work and investment — time and money.

“Strategy is about setting yourself apart from the competition. It’s not a matter of being better at what you do — it’s a matter of being different at what you do.” — Michael Porter

Being completely different in marketing terms means being unique. As we’ve become more creative and innovative that’s increasingly rare. It’s where huge returns live. It’s the gold standard of success.

Decision Quality

Strategy can often be made up of a set of tactics. These are the decisions we made earlier. If they weren’t decisions then the strategy will fail. Intentions are not decisions. Tactics have to add up to the aim of the strategy or we have to make different decisions.

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu

Decisions are those things that are irrevocable. Otherwise, you will confuse the hell out of everyone. A decision is final. If it wasn’t a decision you just declared an intention. Make up your mind.

“Strategy is a fancy word for coming up with a long-term plan and putting it into action.” — Ellie Pidot

The Disruption Thing

Disruption. It’s that situation where a smaller (typically) company (with fewer resources) successfully challenges an established business or idea.

“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.” — Michael LeBoeuf

Incumbent businesses tend to sit back and watch. They tend to focus more on improving their products and services. They are stuck in a way — focussing on their demanding and profitable customers.

Disrupters exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments.

“Failure is nothing more than a chance to revise your strategy.” — Anonymous

Strategy Defined

The word strategy gets flung about with abandon. It may be better to abandon the word itself but I don’t have an alternative that works. Plan? Direction?

What’s a strategy for?

  1. To set direction and priorities:​ A strategy is needed because it sets the direction and establishes priorities for the organization. It defines the organisation’s view of success and prioritizes the activities that will make this view a reality. The strategy will help everyone know what they should be working on, and what they should be working on first. Without a clearly defined and articulated strategy, all kinds of decisions will be made that undermines our priority initiatives — the ones that will drive the highest success will be given secondary treatment.
  2. To get everyone on the same page​: If people are working to achieve different aims, or going in different directions, then we have failed on our strategy. With a clearly defined strategic direction, all parts of the operation can work towards a common outcome. Everyone moves together to achieve the organization’s goals.
  3. To simplify decision-making​: The absence of strategy often signals trouble. It makes it very hard to say no to new ideas or potential initiatives. Our strategy must prioritise all the activities necessary for success. Priorities make it easier to say no to distracting initiatives.
  4. To drive alignment​: Most organisations have hard-working people putting their best efforts into areas that have little to no effect on strategic success. This is because their activities aren’t aligned with the priorities.
  5. To communicate the message​: Strategy can often be confused with Vision or Mission — our strategy is clear — it is the plan that means we will achieve our aims and intentions. We must make this explicit so that there’s no doubt or risk around our intentions. If the strategy isn’t down on paper and hasn’t been communicated thoroughly then it’s likely that few people are acting on it.

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John Caswell

John Caswell

Group Partners Help Clients Make Strategies That Work. I’m The Head Of Crayons.