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Famous strategy fails No. 1: “Too fancypants for my down-to-earth operation”


Maybe your business doesn’t have a strategic plan. At least, not in a document that clearly describes the problems your company is currently working to solve, the solutions your people are striving right now to implement, and the timeframes, resources and tools that are required to make it all happen.

Newsflash time

Document or no, you do have a strategy. And I don’t mean that not-having-a-strategy is a strategy. (Though in a meta sort of a way it absolutely is.)

Rather, whether or not this is down on paper, there are:

  • milestones you and your people are aiming to accomplish,

  • reasons you settled on those particular milestones,

  • transactions that need to take place in order for those milestones to be reached, and

  • things you’re all doing to facilitate those transactions.

These are all elements of strategy.

I’m still talking to Mr. or Ms. ”Strategic Planning’s For MBA W**kers”. (If that’s not you, feel free to skip straight to #Famousstrategyfails No. 2.)

Since you are actually following a strategy, at least according to the non-fancypants definition, would you say that it’s helping you continually tweak your operations in ways that increase your competitive advantage? Is it giving every one of your people clarity on exactly what they should focus on right now – and better still, what other teams or individuals are focused on and how to support each other’s roles?

There’s a simple way to check this out. Just ask a few people in your business two simple questions:

  1. What are you working on right now?

  2. What relationship does that activity have with increasing our competitive advantage?

If you’re satisfied with every answer, it may be that you’re the unicorn company that doesn’t need its strategy to be documented. (Read on anyway; we’re almost done … )

Don’t throw the blunt axe out: make it sharper

A common reason for resistance to strategic planning is the time and effort required to create an effective plan. Given how quickly markets, techniques and technologies change in the modern world, this resistance is entirely rational. Before the toner has baked into the laser paper it’s printed on, a strategic plan may be obsolete.

But that takes nothing away from the fact that effective strategic planning has proven to offer tangible benefits to any business, no matter how down-to-earth it is:

  • strengthened competitive advantage

  • heightened team performance

  • improved profitability (revenue up; costs down)

  • increased brand value.

So, rather than suffering the time and effort downsides of traditional strategic planning – which is exhaustive, highly detailed, and designed with a long-term view – smart companies are engaging with faster, leaner ways of strategy-making.

The techniques I now use in organizations of varying sizes and industries, and in both New Zealand and China, draw heavily from the disciplines of design thinking and Agile software development. These disciplines arose in direct response to the risks of getting things wrong in an unforgiving marketplace, and prioritise flexibility and speed over comprehensiveness. And I’m certainly not the only one who’s seen how effective agile strategy-making can be (read Harvard Business Review’s take on it here).

The Chinese have a saying about the time spent sharpening the axe being critical to a lumberjack’s ability to fell a forest quickly. Likewise, the time you spend optimising your strategy-making skills will be repaid many times over in the gains you’ll see in performance, productivity and profit.

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