Only one thing can stop you; your lack of strategy.
Mistaking Goals for Strategy is not an unusual mistake in every sector within which I have worked, from business to sport and from charities to local government. And because so many confuse the two it is a weakness that many businesses overlook until it is too late.
I recently met the owner of a business who has struggled somewhat in the economic downturn of the last couple of years. He was confused by the struggles of his organisation because, he said, his strategy always made sense on paper. He asked, would I mind joining his Senior Management Team and him to take a look to check they had it right?
A couple of weeks later I was sat in the company Board Room listening to him and his SMT explain the Company Strategy to me. As is the current vogue, the strategy had a name; the ‘20/five/25 Plan’ and, I was assured, I would love it because of its “beautiful simplicity.”
The plan was to increase revenues by 20% per annum over the next five years while increasing profit margins by 25% over the same period. Having told me the plan, they looked at me expectantly, I assume waiting for praise.
I paused before I spoke considering my words very carefully. “Well, it is certainly aggressive,” I started, “now, what will you need to do to ensure this happens?”
Bob, the company owner smiled at me before saying; “you are going to love this Jim, especially given your sporting background and your belief in always striving for excellence. Because what we have here in abundance is the will to win and the desire to keep pushing even when it hurts. Yes, 20/5/25 is a challenge, but we are all winners here and we are committed to keep pushing until we get there.”
I again paused before I spoke, aware that communication isn’t always what you say but also about what you are understood to have said. Maybe he misunderstood my question? Okay, I’ll phrase it differently; “Bob, I congratulate you and your team on your ambition however, making this kind of leap in performance usually relies on identifying a key strength on which you can build, create change or generate new opportunities. What is it you have identified?”
Still expecting something more, Bob’s response surprised me. He quoted Jack Welch; “we have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually achieve the impossible.”
Of course, one of the problems with using quotes in such circumstances is that they are often used selectively and/or out of context. It was Jack Welch who also said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”
I needed to change tack and so asked Bob if he saw the generals in command at the Battle of the Somme as suitable role models? He asked me to explain what I meant.
I took a deep breath and explained; “At the Somme, and at Passchendaele and at many other First World War battles, ‘pushing until you get there’ sent tens of thousands of men over the top to almost certain death. They didn’t lack the will to win; neither did they lack motivation even if, for some, motivation came from the threat of being shot if they didn’t go over the top. What thy lacked was competent strategic leadership; leadership which could see the difference between blindly pursuing a goal (‘over the top, one more push’) and having a clear strategy, a series of coherent steps to get them there. What strategy does is to establish the conditions which will make the push, the motivation and the will to win successful.”
I saw the penny drop. Bob and his SMT realised that what they had in their ‘20/five/25 plan’ was, in fact, an aspiration, a goal. In order to reach the destination defined by that goal they needed to plan the route. They needed a strategy.
Bob and his SMT are now developing that strategy and in the course of doing so have pared back their ambitious goal because they realised they lacked the resources to achieve it. They won’t make the same mistake again and they are now well on the way to planning their way through the downturn and to emerging healthy and ready to grow.
But what of you and your business? Does your strategy confuse the ‘what’ with the ‘how’? Are you going over the top for one more push or have you got a clearly marked road map to success; aka, a strategy?
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, September 2012