“Sustained success is largely a matter of focusing regularly on the right things and making a lot of uncelebrated little improvements every day.”
“People don’t want quarter-inch drills.
They want quarter inch holes.”
“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
As I was picking my way through an old Economist <May 2015> magazine on a plane flight I came across an article where The Boston Consulting Group <a smart business consulting firm most known for its “stars, cash cows, dogs & question mark” business matrix> had published something suggesting that a single overarching business strategy, in today’s business world, is a recipe for failure.
That made me sit up a little. That is something I have believed … well … ever since I was experienced enough to understand what I was learning in the business strategy world.
That is also something, my belief, which sometimes made my business career slightly miserable. Because this thought is not the norm, nor the most acceptable, in the typical management office in business <then & now>.
Let’s be clear.
This whole business strategy discussion is important … really important. Strategy makes or breaks a business. In fact … strategy is more important than great leadership and perseverance and hard work and even luck <although all those things are quite helpful>.
Strategy is always challenging. More often than not you have some business vision and hunker down with some strategy to attain it.
It is during the hunkering down period that some challenges start raising their heads.
There will always be characteristics of a good solid strategy that imbue an organization with confidence that it is a guide towards what is needed to succeed. And, yet, there are some other characteristics of this elusive, but probably well thought out strategy, which do not necessarily burst with confidence but rather they represent the greyish areas of the strategy. These are actually the parts of the strategy which are built to adapt and morph into something solid when the time & place occurs.
All that grayish stuff does not imbue confidence.
Inevitably most companies pursue a variety of diverse thoughts and will end up choosing maybe not a completely new strategy but certainly pursue somewhat different paths.
Those ‘different paths’ is actually all about trying things, following the good ones and eliminating the bad ones. well … that can sure sound a lot like chaos.
It surely could be … if it were not closely attached to self-interest <and not survival>. Trying strategies on like a new suit for a formal occasion is about reforming and adapting skipping nimbly from one strategy to another to assume your place in the context of the situation.
And it can also take on some characteristics f chaos if you do not shed some things, strategies included, as you adapt.
As I noted in something I wrote in June 2014 that as an organization naturally grows in fits & starts it will certainly … uhm … no … absolutely … gather up some bad characteristics. Well. Ok. Maybe some characteristics which are like barnacles on the ship.
They slow you down.
Eliminating those barnacles is hard. And the hard truth in is they must go if the business wants to be successful.
Old less than effective strategies are included I this barnacle discussion.
They must go as the organization adapts if you accept the multi strategy thinking.
The whole adapting and adding and discarding discussion is easy when talking about tactics. Businesses do it all the time and pat themselves on the back for ‘being nimble and adapting to the market needs.’
They ignore the fact that tactics are simply window dressing and that these changes are simply a new paint job on a slowly sinking ship.
While it may sound too simplistic to suggest businesses would be better off thinking of strategies as easy to change as tactics … it may actually be some sound advice. Well. Sound advice for non-amateurs. Advice like that taken in hand by someone who didn’t really understand strategy and vision would most likely be a disaster.
In my heart of hearts I have always balked at one overarching unchanging business strategy. It made no sense to me <okay … it made sense I just didn’t think it was particularly effective in an ever changing business environment>. I just never was smart enough to articulate why what I believed made more sense.
While I loved that part of business, strategic positioning businesses in the marketplace, I often found myself being forced to apply square peg strategy solutions into what I saw as businesses’ ever evolving round, trapezoid, hexagonal, triangular and, yes, sometimes, square strategy opportunity holes. I often felt like I was being asked to place a stripped screw into a nail hole.
I wanted a tighter fit.
I always wanted to switch and blend and, as we often suggest a business is unique & distinct, I always felt a business deserved a distinct strategy and not one we simply pulled off the shelf.
Frankly, one overarching strategy in today’s fast moving & amazing competitive diverse business environment is a formula for eventual obsoletion. The marketplace naturally cycles and it seems slightly outdated thinking to believe if your organization doesn’t cycle it can ride out the marketplace cycle successfully.
And obsoletion can happen even if the business is well run, running well and providing a high level of service and satisfaction. Because as I noted in one of my ‘creative destruction’ articles there is always some scrappy entrepreneurial business out there thinking about how to rewrite the rules of doing business in that category and industry.
I am not suggesting you have to create your own strategy <although I am a fan of a hybrid strategy> but you can certainly select one of the commonly accepted strategies from a menu and switch back & forth as the situation dictates.
This means you can use accepted strategy platforms but by constantly adapting the strategy a business can avoid the undesirable situation of:
<a>deciding to having to leap into the unknown and stop leading and instead emulating the businesses infringing upon an industry they used to know so well … or,
<b> simply exist as an ever limiting cash cow, or a business solely relying on operations, in other words … destined to becoming a marginal player in a new world.
By the way.
This is not about disruption <which has become an overused and ill-used word> but rather managing a business to take advantage of a diverse range of opportunities which inevitably arise in any industry and category.
This may sound slightly chaotic and certainly difficult to manage and keep everything, and everyone, in line.
I do not believe it is chaotic but I do know 100% for sure, it is difficult to do.
But as someone smarter than I has said in the past … “nothing worth doing is easy.”
But it is worth doing.
I have always felt, sometimes balking at what I was being taught, that strategic change is almost a must for long term survival. I say ‘almost’ because if you are big enough, strong enough and savvy enough … like a huge nose tackle in football … you can bull your way through almost anything in your way <for awhile .. until your legs get tired or you get triple teamed>.
Leaders, businesses who do lead, may suggest that this strategy shifting thing is not for them..
But part of leading is recognizing not only that someone is chasing you but that they may be getting a little close to you … and you should pull a ‘crazy Ivan.’
I always called this shaking the etch a sketch.
This is not disruption per se … this is more like simply changing the context, the game and the rules. Make the others adapt.
The how. How to do this.
The article in The Economist whined a little bit about how the authors of the Boston Consulting Group didn’t share ‘ways to implement so that managers didn’t go crazy or astray.’
Most likely because they didn’t have to.
Most good businesses do not stray from their core competence and skill. Functionally what they do well. And they combine this with an attitudinal/character compass.
Note I say “good businesses.’
Because I will also note, as I have in the past, for some reason defining these two things is oddly more difficult than one would think. And agreement even if you define it? Yikes. Even tougher.
In the end.
I would suggest pursuing an inconsistent consistent strategy shift is very much like simply pursing self-interest <not survival interest>.
The distinction I make here is that survival suggests ‘do anything to survive’ and this more often than not can lead you down some paths that permit you to survive short term but long term can put you in some untenable position.
Self interest suggests more ego-ism centered therefore naturally imbibes aspects of self-vision, character and embodiment of who and what you are.
This self interest permits you to navigate the natural tension in business of maintaining a stable business model that produces consistent results and the embracing of some reinvention. I say this because a healthy self, a person, navigates this same tension in Life therefore if you view business as … well … not just a business seeking to survive & thrive but rather a personal self-interest modality you can embrace both the rewarding stability and the rewarding reinvention.
I will note many of the high falutin’ books on strategy avoid this topic.
Their core premise is staying the course to maximize return and simplify overarching decision making.
And, I admit, the path I am recommending is a rockier road <but far more interesting>.
Some aspects of strategy, such as pricing the value proposition, portfolio mix, messaging, etc. can be revised relatively quickly and some of these things can change as often as you want. but other elements, such as infrastructure capabilities or existing customer profiles cannot be adapted as quickly.
Maybe about a dozen years ago or so in my attempt to address this I developed a philosophy based on staking out a business compass based on something I called “the inner truth.” <see image to the right>.
I believed if a business could understand and embrace their inner truth than day to day business could have some flexibility & autonomy. In some cases I would even suggest strategy could adapt … as long as they stayed true to their inner truth.
The concept of strategic agility and flexibility is extremely appealing. It is challenging but has a tendency to combine what almost every business desires — the nimbleness of the start-up/entrepreneurial years and the solid consistency knowledge gained from experience offers.
What I do know … and feel slightly vindicated that the Boston consulting group has finally jumped on the ‘adaptable strategy train’ … is that the combination of a solid consistent vision core being enabled by an adapting semi-autonomous strategic construct around it creates a higher likelihood of success in the marketplace.
Be smart. Be thoughtful. Try things. Follow those that work. Adapt. Never lose sight of the core no matter what you explore.