Have a clear end point in mind: but you’ll need to change the route to get there

Organisations tend to think of the big destination and the strategy to get there as the same thing: Strategy. But something I’ve noticed over the past few years in the aviation world helps us understand why they’re not the same thing.

Ewan McIntosh


There used to be a time when I took the plane to somewhere, via Dubai, almost every other week. In the morning I’d set off for Dubai, and on to Hong Kong or Nanjing, before returning for a couple of days in Dubai, and then home in time for tea on Friday. They were hectic weeks, with a lot of time in the plane, and I noticed that the flights got longer and longer.

Take the initial route to Dubai, for example. Until last summer, this trip took me routinely over Southern Turkey, Syria, Mosul and Basra in Iraq, down the Persian Gulf sea border next to (but avoiding) Iran, and into Dubai (the blue line in the graphic below. Source: Daily Mail). I used to enjoy peering out at the flames from the oil fields of Iraq and the bright beacons of Kuwait.

Burning oil fields in Iraq, just as the territory began to be taken over by ISIS.

Then, the safest route was a good 10–30 minutes longer, over what is deemed safer — Ukraine, the annexed Crimea and Iran, coming in through the back door to Dubai. And even that has changed subtly — the route is now a meandering zig zag across the continent, offering views of countries that, five years ago, banned flights from crossing their airspace.

Incredible landscapes to the East of Tehran, Iran, that I’d never been able to see before the changes in routes due to conflict.

The destination hasn’t changed but, due to horrific circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Ukraine, the route has had to.

When an organisation is looking at its strategy, I often find that the route and destination are conflated, they become one and the same. If the destination is too far flung or far-fetched, then we don’t leave the current status quo. If the destination is appealing but the first attempt to get there is thwarted, we tend to see strategy teams crash land, declare a failure, and walk all the way back, slowly and painfully, to the status quo of before.

The teams who reroute overnight are rare. The teams with a genuine pioneer spirit are rarer — they tend to be the ones who call up my team to help them get to some genuine BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).

Because this is the key to rerouting. It’s a multi-team multidisciplinary effort, and everyone needs to know their role. Having everyone ‘collaborate’ on the same stuff is just group work, and the equivalent of having the entire ground staff, airline leadership team, crew and, if there’s any space left, passengers on the rerouted plane:

  • teachers and students need to really understand where the institution is with a snapshot (three-week?) immersion. They need to learn the questioning skills that will unearth the really interesting emotional, empathetic and factual stories in the institution.
  • leadership need to provide a space in which the war room of thinking can be visible (and addable to) by everyone during this tight period of immersion.
  • the same research team need to work with school leadership to synthesise the mass of data they have gathered.
  • with outside help and provocation, the design and leadership team need to have confidence in putting forward to the Board the key problems and opportunities they have found, through pitches.
  • the Board have to be pushed to think beyond the micro and ‘safe’, and think about the inspiring future they can envision using the data they have been shown.
  • design teams need to iterate their nascent ideas to solve the problems they identified, before the Board commits to their wording. Their prototypes and feedback will inform the process.
  • everyone, whenever and with whomever they are working, needs to be aware of their decision-making rights and role in order to really collaborate.

Having a strategy, having a destination, is not enough. You need to have a timeline that shows when each of these steps will take place, and when each prototype will become more solid, should they prove successful. These tools enable the leadership to leave the flight deck, and let teachers, students, parents and other teams get on with their jobs, confident in the turns they take.

A post similar to this was originally published at edu.blogs.com on February 22, 2015.



Ewan McIntosh

I help people find their place in a team to achieve something bigger than they are. NoTosh.com