The Basics of Being Strategic About Change
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
Lately the business landscape keeps moving under us all in a variety of important ways. The nature of media and how the public consumes it keeps shifting; younger workers arrive with unprecedented expectations; consumers focus more on quality and personalization; technologies change the way work gets done on every level from the personal to the global effects of outsourcing. Those are just a few of the big movements we’re all trying to keep up with.
In such complex and challenging times, business people keep saying, “We need to be more strategic.” The problem is, we generally don’t say what we really mean by that or, more important, how to do it.
I would suggest this definition: Being strategic means consistently focusing on those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.
That is a deceptively simple sentence. It implies that you know where you’re starting from, that you’re clear about where you want to go and that you will make core choices about how to get there, with a consistent, focused effort to travel down your clear path. My colleagues and I have created a simple and practical approach for doing just that, for creating realistic vision and strategic map for your business and then using that map to navigate through rough waters or calm.
Here are the process’ five steps in a nutshell:
Decide what you’re solving for. Amazingly often business people try to solve problems without first getting completely clear on what those problems are. That can lead to “dueling solutions,” as a team argues about solving a problem that hasn’t been properly identified. Only once you have a clear and agreed-on sense of the core challenge you’re trying to address—from “How can we provide a uniquely valuable customer experience that drives our business’ success?” to “How can we build a manufacturing team that delivers on our business model?”—can you begin addressing that challenge.
Know where you’re starting from. Once you’re clear on your challenge, it’s important to have an accurate and balanced picture of your current reality relative to that challenge. It’s all too easy to avoid looking at or to underestimate the less pleasant aspects of your situation. Is the slump in July sales just an anomaly, for instance, or is it part of a larger trend? Being a fair witness of your own business is an essential and underutilized skill.
Get clear about your hoped-for future. In difficult times it’s always easy to retreat into survival mode. Having—and consistently articulating—a clear sense of your hoped-for future for the business gives your employees a positive frame for action and offers an antidote to fear. If your people know that, say, you intend to double your number of retail outlets over the next five years, they’ll respond with significantly improved morale and productivity.
Face the obstacles. Once you’ve decided and articulated the future you want to create, it’s essential that you be very accurate about the obstacles you’ll have to overcome to make it happen. Executives—and human beings in general—tend to either over- or underestimate the importance and impact of obstacles. Here again, it’s critical that you be a fair witness. Look at the possible obstacles to your vision in a dispassionate and objective way. That makes it much more likely you’ll be able to assess them well and take appropriate action to overcome them.
Make core directional choices, and then get specific. Strategies mark out the pathways that will lead to your hoped-for future. For example, “Concentrate on new product growth,” or “Build an international sales force.” Strategies are core-level decisions about how to best focus your time and energy. Business people often move straight from vision to tactics without establishing clear strategies, and they end up with uncoordinated efforts that don’t make the best use of important resources.
Once you have a handful of clear, high-leverage strategies, you can use them as a filter to decide what to do. For instance, what specific actions will you take to build that international sales force? Will you best use your resources by investing in your existing sales people, providing them with more training or better tools, or do you need to add new people in geographic areas of potential growth? By using your strategies as a screen for action, you can make the most effective choices about what to do and what not to do–one of your most difficult and most important challenges, especially in lean times.
Your goal is to navigate through these changing times while positioning yourself and your company for future success. Following these basic steps can take you from simply saying “We need to be more strategic” to actually doing so and reaping the rewards that follow.