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Strategy: What Not To Do June 29, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in strategy.
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Formulating strategy is all about making choices, sometimes hard choices, about where to invest resources for future gain. When the leadership team or senior manager declares a strategy, they’re making a statement about priorities and what the organization should use as a guide when making daily decisions. This may seem obvious, but the message is both stated and unstated. Strategy isn’t just what we’re going to do, it’s also what we’re not going to do, whether stated explicitly or implied by its absence.

I’ve led and participated in strategic planning meetings for years. Typically the organizers invite stakeholders from multiple organizations, including upstream and downstream partners, other functions, customers, and suppliers. The idea of course is to solicit input from a variety of sources, creating a brainstormed list on a whiteboard or flip chart. Although there might be some effort to distill the inputs to a shorter list, there’s usually a strong desire to ensure that every constituent feels they’ve been heard and can recognize their input in the final list of strategies. The output is formatted for public consumption, turned into a presentation, and everyone pats each other on the back.

The problem starts at the first meeting after the strategic planning session when the leadership team gathers to put plans in place. In their effort to please everyone, they’ve overlooked the fact that they don’t have the resources (people, money, time) to implement all these great ideas. Some “strategies” may turn out to be “business as usual,” not necessarily a bad thing, but not the breakthrough ideas that some may have been seeking. The team may discover that other strategies are actually in opposition to higher-level business objectives.

Some leadership teams realize this early, but too often they struggle on with regular meetings to discuss plans to execute a bushel basket of strategies created to please everyone, but in the end accomplishing very little. The initial energy behind the planning exercise dissipates, not much changes, but all is forgotten when the next cycle of annual planning comes around.

Strategic planning that attempts to please every constituent is probably doomed to failure. Trying to do too much is arguably worse than doing nothing because of daily resource conflict and the failure to meet raised expectations. Strategy is about making choices, and that means some people are going to be disappointed because their priorities were not addressed. Effective leaders focus on fewer strategies, make it clear that what is omitted may seem important but will not receive the same attention, and ensure their own behaviors and communications are consistent with those choices.

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