“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu
One of the primary themes of our time appears to be uncertainty. Whether you’re talking to someone about the government, the economy, or the weather, over and over again people express frustration over not knowing what’s coming next.
In spite of what we like to think, uncertainty isn’t new, particularly in business. We’ve never known exactly what’s coming next. It’s always seemed like we’re driving blindfolded. The difference now is that change is happening so quickly; it’s like driving blindfolded at 100 miles per hour instead of 10. And it can be unnerving.
One of the results of that feeling is a tendency of many people these days to ignore strategy. If I were to summarize all the comments I’ve heard to that effect, it would sound like this: “The future is too hard to predict to worry about strategy. Why bother planning when the circumstances are just going to change anyway? There’s no way to be certain our strategy will be relevant in the future – things are changing too quickly. We’ll just deal with issues as they arise and make decisions when we need to.”
The problem with that thinking is the implication that when issues arise and when you need to make decisions that somehow there will be certainty at that time. The reality is you won’t feel any more certain then than you do now. And you’ll have lost precious time.
So what are leaders to do? First, get rid of the idea that strategy and planning are about certainty. Too often businesses lay out a strategy and when things don’t happen exactly as planned they say, “Well, that was a waste of time, we’ll never do that again.” Strategy isn’t about certainty – it’s about making choices in the midst of uncertainty. It’s about making the best estimate you can of your customers’ and competitors’ future behavior, the future of your industry, etc, and then acting accordingly.
Second, strategy isn’t something you just “do” at a retreat. It’s also about being responsive to changes in your best estimates. You take your best shot at what you think will happen, see what actually happens, then recalibrate your strategy and do it again. You have to be wiling to act to implement your strategy, and you have to be willing to act to adjust it to actual outcomes.
Third, the idea that the world changes so quickly that strategy is no longer relevant is wrong. What’s actually true is that the world changes so quickly that you have to adjust faster. Traditionally, businesses might do some kind of major strategic planning event. Then, they’d get together again in a few years and see how it went. More recently, some businesses have managed to have some kind of annual strategy session. That’s better, but these days not enough. I think you can have a major annual event if you like, but the strategy has to be reviewed & updated at least every 90 days. Even if your management/executive team just discusses your strategy for a few hours a quarter, that’s an improvement.
Finally, don’t get confused about strategy vs. tactics. Your monthly management meeting where you talk about buying a new computer system or talk about some particular employee issue or try and figure out why a certain machine is having quality issues – that’s not strategy. Strategy is bigger than the everyday noise. It’s about how what market you’re playing in, who else is playing, and how you’re going to win there. Tactical meetings are important, but too often they happen at the expense of strategy.
Think about your business – are you being strategic? Are you looking into the fog of the future and jumping in? Or are you waiting for outside forces to push you into your decisions? The choice is yours – only your future depends on it.
“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky