If I asked you to make the distinction between a goal and a strategy, you would probably tell me that a goal is an intended outcome, and a strategy is the approach through which that outcome is attained.
Pretty simple, right?
And yet so many entrepreneurs and other business leaders make the mistake of combining the two. When asked to outline their strategy, they declare something like “my company will become the number one in our industry by expanding into broader territory in order to optimise our return of interest”.
Great. But none of that is strategy. Expanding the regions in which a business operates might actually be the best way to take the business to number one, but how are they going to go about it? And how will it optimise their return of interest?
Ask them how, and the leader won’t have much, if any idea. It’s just what they want to do.
That is where businesses of all sizes tend to come undone when planning for the future. They think that by pointing out a few key factors in achieving their goal, they have, in fact, developed a strategy. Yet all they have actually done is list a few more goals.
True strategy is all about choice. The clear choice to take specific direction in the pursuit of a goal.
According to associate professor and author Freek Vermeulen, who penned an article for HBR to mark the release of his new book Breaking Bad Habits: Defy Industry Norms and Reinvigorate Your Business, there are four points of action which business leaders can take to ensure their strategic choices are understood, and followed to ensure goals are met. While Vermeulen contextualises them for larger, publicly-owned companies, I feel they apply just as well to private organisations.
Communicate Your Logic
Vermeulen discusses the transition of Hornby Railways from a toy company for kids into a manufacturer of products for hobbyists and collectors.
Such a transition would have likely sparked doubt and mistrust in new CEO Frank Martin had he not been able to easily and concisely explain the logic behind his choice.
By communicating not just the ‘what’, but the ‘why’ in a way Hornby employees could understand, he unified them behind his strategy. They believed in his approach, and so it naturally inspired them to follow it rather than spending their time questioning whether the choice would send the iconic company bankrupt.
Within five years, company shares increased to seven times the price they’d been when Martin came on board.
Promote Bottom-Up Initiative
You’ve communicated your strategy, and now its time for the staff to get to work.
It’s unreasonable, even foolish, to think that sending them in a single direction with no ability to experiment with new ideas nor methods will deliver the intended result every time. After all, you hired them because you trust in their ability to help you reach the goal, so why not give them the freedom to do so in the way they believe is best?
I’m not suggesting you let them run wild. Communicate guidelines, and keep track of experiments as they progress so you can pull the plug if necessary.
If one or a few of these bottom-up initiatives fail, so be it. Such failure only seeks to refocus the organisation’s vision towards the path that will bring success.
Here’s a hypothetical: two employees bring plans to you about how they believe they can best execute your strategy. Both are feasible, but you only have the budget for one.
Which do you choose?
The one that appeals to you the most, right? It’s your business after all, so where’s the problem in that?
Here’s where: just because you run the business, doesn’t mean you intrinsically know what’s going to provide the best solution every time.
It’s critical that you remain objective. Establish a system through which to judge such projects, or take them to other managers/employees to get their opinion.
What seems right for us isn’t always what’s right for the business. Great leaders – those that call themselves members of The 8 Percent – recognise that.
Make Change Your Default
Ah, habits. In any business, habits often prove both a blessing and a bane.
When implementing strategy, habits are what stop us from changing something that’s functioning “well enough”. Habits are why even the best strategies have the potential to fail.
Vermeulen’s suggestion, as outlined in his book, is to make a habit of change.
Make looking for ways to buck tradition and explore potential a default on the journey to your goal. After all, the journey itself never proves straight forward, so why should we take every step in the same fashion as the last?