Achieving Strategic Focus
The Book of Five Certainties

by Tim Gregory

It was just yesterday when organizations and their leaders were eschewing old-fashioned strategic planning in favor of get-rich-quick Internet fantasies and an unhealthy fixation with top-line growth. The era of the "new business model" was upon us, demanding that we abandon anything that had been tried more than once, or at least so it seemed. Who had time for the drudgery of strategy and something as abstract as vision, especially when a pot of gold lies just beyond the next great Dot-Com idea or technical revolution?

But, the "new" is now the old. Traditional, tried and true business methods have returned, newly glamorized and openly espoused. Much of the latest business buzz seems to focus on achieving credible and lasting strategic focus, by harnessing, in part, the expertise and experience of your workforce.

And why not? With much of the world's organizations rife with uncertainty, strategy serves as an organizational compass, pointing to where we need to go without ignoring where we are or where we've been. It's the "magnetic north" of the organization, around which all of the elements of the business can focus and rally.

But achieving strategic focus, by its very nature, is a risky business. There are no templates for creating an effective strategy. Nor are there any guarantees that you've got the right one in place once you think you've figured it out. In fact, you probably won't really be able to judge the effectiveness of what you've got until you are well into executing it.

So, amidst this uncertainty, here's a guidebook of five certainties that will help any organization working to achieve strategic focus:

  1. Great Strategic Results are in the Eye of the Customer

    The opportunity to speak to your customer, and observe his or her experience using the products or services of your organization, is invaluable - and that's not news. But what sometimes unfortunately seems all too novel is the idea of keeping your customers top of mind, all the time, as your "magnetic north" in the strategy process. After all, the success of your strategy and its implementation is going to be measured by how well your customers respond to it. Unless you've made certain that what's most important to your customers today, and what might be most important to them tomorrow, are major drivers in focusing your business, neither you nor your customers will be happy with your business results.

  2. Achieving Strategic Focus is a Team Sport

    Don't think strategic focus is going to occur with one or two management meetings. Creating the right strategy won't be easy. Be relentless about involving "all of the right people" in the organization at appropriate moments throughout the process. Empower your best and brightest, and encourage their full participation in idea and experience collecting. But keep in mind, once you've built a base of employee input, at some point or other, you are going to have to concentrate the decision making power of the organization and make decisions. And you'll have to act; employees will resent being involved if their efforts are for naught.

  3. Strategy is about Providing Customers an Overall Superior Experience - Not Necessarily a Unique One

    Companies with credible and lasting strategy can describe what value they offer, how they provide it, and to whom they communicate it. Effective strategic focus is not necessarily about being the lowest priced, the highest quality, or the easiest to use. Instead, it's about profitably and sustainably providing some defined and targeted set of customers a superior experience in the marketplace. It can be about the destination achieved (e.g. lower cost); but it can be equally about the journey involved (e.g., easy to do business with). If some defined group of customers deem choosing you for some specific purpose as their best overall move, all things considered, and if you can deliver that expected value profitably to them, your strategic focus is on the right track.

  4. A Successful Process for Achieving Strategic Focus Should Anticipate a Short Shelf Life

    The process of achieving strategic focus should teach everyone within an organization how vital it is to continuously and positively respond to the ever-changing business climate and fluctuating marketplace demands. An effective strategy process will build in institutional mechanisms to signal that bits and pieces of the organization's focus are becoming obsolete or ineffectual. And that can happen overnight. When the strategy has been developed anticipating ongoing review and reevaluation, an organization will always be shifting, moving, tweaking and changing its focus in anticipation of what today means for tomorrow. That doesn't mean changing in response to every disruptive technology, customer complaint, or momentary tilting of the marketplace. An effective strategy, and the processes that make up its underpinnings, will assure that the ongoing creation of value, competitive advantage and, most importantly, satisfied customers, is a constant, fluid and permanent dynamic within the organization.

  5. The Final Proof is in The Execution

    The execution process must be the final component of your strategy building effort. Forgive a bit of the hackneyed for a moment, but it's in the execution phase when the organizational rubber hits the road. And before that begins to happen, a make or break moment will be how thoroughly you cascade the strategy down through the organization. Use the momentum created by the creative, company-wide, strategic focusing process to motivate your entire workforce at every level and in every discipline. Get everyone committed to the strategy, beginning with making certain that employees understand the overall strategic focus and its individual components. Only then can an organization really expect to achieve the results anticipated.

Our Conclusion

If your organization's strategic focus is not clear to everyone, from executives on down, you need to make it so. And rest assured that you won't find focus in a piece of software or on the pages of the latest best-selling business book. Instead, it's just inside the front door of every organization, lodged in the portfolio of your employees' experiences along with intimate knowledge of a "day in the life" of your customer. Sometimes, it just needs to be nudged to organizational daylight, where it can take root and grow, shaped by leadership, and nurtured by all.

Tim Gregory is Executive Vice President of BakerER, a strategic growth and workplace management consulting firm. Whether in the marketplace or workplace, our promise is simple: we help organizations that compete on the basis or their relationships to be the “best choice” for their customers and employees. The end result: sustainable, profitable growth for the organization.

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