Invent Your Future with
"The only thing we know about the future is that it will
"Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from
If the purpose for an organization to get somewhere then only walking long enough is the answer. But if you care a great deal on where you want to go, the direction you choose is vitally important. A strategy is simply choosing that direction and figuring out a way to get there. As the old adage says, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there!"
The good old days of producing a 5-year strategic plan in a 3-ring binder are passť. Bursting at the seams, these plans were created by the corporate planning staff who many times missed the forest for the trees. The plans were created in a vacuum and were not grounded in reality. They mostly focused on repositioning the organization in the existing environment. They were long because people didn't put the effort into honing them down to a few carefully-chosen, clearly-focused statements. Mark Twain, who once said, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time," surely would have agreed. And most importantly, they gathered dust as book-ends on the shelf because they were not constructed by people who needed to own them and implement them.
It's not only large corporations that generate plans worthy of propping open a heavy door. Even those at small companies are apt to ramble on aimlessly about their future direction. Sometimes they rely on platitudes and motherhood-and-apple-pie statements, which only serve to further obscure the true purpose of the plan. Because the whole process to understand and make sense out of internal and external realities can be so daunting, some simply avoid strategic planning like the plague. Instead they choose to live day-to-day, and confuse the urgent with the important.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
Why do organizations develop plans that are too long, boring, and irrelevant? Or avoid the process entirely? In many cases it's because they are beset with internal problems such as:
The first task for leaders is to ask if their organizations are afflicted with one or more of these maladies. In re-making IBM, Lou Gerstner described "changing the culture-the mindset and instincts of people" as the hardest part. He goes on to describe that "this kind of wrenching cultural change doesn't happen by executive fiat."
Strategy a Panacea?
Gerstner's words of wisdom explain why a cerebral exercise like strategy formulation is only as good as a half-baked pie. He goes on to say this: "Execution--getting the task done, making it happen-is the most unappreciated skill of a business leader. In many years as a consultant, I participated in the development of many strategies for many companies. I will let you in on a dirty little secret of consulting: It is extremely difficult to develop a unique strategy for a company."
There is an old Chinese saying: "To know and not do is not to know." Yet, strategy formulation as performed by major consulting firms has reached an exalted status and a huge price tag. In their latest book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton make a similar case that strategy may not be that important after all. They contend that "having a clear strategy is essential for producing focus and facilitating communication and coordinated action inside companies. Yet there is good reason to be skeptical that merely making right strategic choices is the key to business success."
Strategy within an industry or a company is hardly unique or a secret. It is widely known and discussed in speeches, annual reports, and investment analyses. Yet there is tendency among many executives, aided and abetted by the so-called strategic consulting outfits, to believe that if only a company could buy that winning Powerball ticket, they could live happily ever after. So companies invest a great deal of time, money, and energy in figuring out that perfect strategy while leaving the less glamorous work of strategy implementation to the minions. The fact that strategy is highly overrated, however, is not lost on all executives. As the former Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher put it," We don't do strategic planning. It's a waste of time."
A strategy has to be grounded in reality, customer-focused, simple to understand and communicate, and flexible. And most importantly its implementation must be an integral part of the overall strategic plan. So how does a leader make sure that the brain of the organization is not disconnected from its heart, hands, and feet?
The One-Page Plan of Action
When it comes to strategic planning, organizations have to think clearly, focus sharply, and communicate eloquently. The first step is to create a succinct, adaptive, and thoughtful strategic plan that, regardless of the size of the organization, fits on one page. (For examples, see One Page Business Plan by Jim Horan.) Hogwash, you say? Not really. With enough discipline, one can easily capture in one page the five essential elements:
A one-page action plan is a credo that you build, internalize, and live by. More than just a manifesto, it becomes the guiding light for day-to-day execution. Strategy formulation and strategy implementation are joined at the hip. A simple but effective one-page action plan allows organizations to make the complex simple - the job of strategy formulation - and make the simple work - the job of strategy implementation. As Andy Grove of Intel put it: "Strategy is important. Figuring out what to do is important. Doing them and doing them well is equally important."
A management consultant, author, and speaker, Abhay Padgaonkar is the founder and president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, LLC (www.innovativesolutions.org), which provides strategic advice to major clients such as American Express.
Many more articles in Strategic Planning in The CEO Refresher Archives