7 Tempting (but bad) Approaches to Avoid When Setting Strategic Direction
Too many organizations are still caught in the malaise of inaction when it comes to setting direction these days. I get it, things are still unclear and not stable. There is a natural rationalization to wait until all of the dust has settled. However, taking no action and a “wait and see” approach can be very dangerous.
Look at the companies who are moving forward, such as Google with its release of Plus. Great companies control their own destiny. And yes they might stub their toe now and then but they succeed even when things do not go well by “failing forward” meaning that not only do they learn from their mistakes but their mistakes come out of a proactive effort to improve things beyond the status quo.
I am not advocating boldness for the sake of being bold or reckless, but I am saying that good companies have aggressively surveyed and scanned the environment and are re-inventing themselves to deliver an appropriate response. And these are the companies who have the head start and will lead in the future.
Below are seven bad but tempting approaches to avoid when deciding on strategic direction. The thing that all of these approaches have in common is that they give the appearance and sense of action but are really non-committal and passive in nature. If you are in a “wait and see” mentality you are no longer in the game; you are watching from the sidelines.
1-Being Faux Opportunistic- Being opportunistic is a good thing. But you have to be opportunistic within your strategy and in a proactive way. Just saying “we should be opportunistic” as a strategy is saying very little if there are no boundaries or active searching in place. You can only get there by having clear plan that allows you to adjust it and take advantage of unanticipated opportunities. Being opportunistic does not mean we wait until an opportunity comes to us and we will grab it. It means putting things in motion, making things happen and being in the right place at the right time to leverage good circumstances.
2- Dabbling- When it comes to strategy, companies must resist the temptation to only “dabble.” Dabbling is weak and only in an extreme exception can be productive. If you want to try out something you may as well commit to it. Of course you still need to plan, monitor, evaluate success and adjust, but give it a real try. Without strong intention you are better not even attempting it.
3- Avoid answering the hard questions unlit a later time. I have been around too many executive teams these days that are tempted to keep deferring the real tough questions until later. In looking back, many executives will tell you that they responded slower than they should have to the economic turndown hoping that it would end soon or not be as harsh as it was looking to be. The tendency in this scenario is either denial or a form of analysis paralysis, always requiring endless discussion before taking a stand. Take on the tough questions, as they do not magically go away. Remember, hope is not a strategy.
4- Solving non-critical problems. This is another wrong turn. I have seen executives and executive teams get all excited and hyped up solving problems that are peripheral to the real challenges of a company. This scenario gives the sense that you are doing something of value when there is little payoff — not to mention the fact that you just wasted a good deal of time and energy.
5- Going Nostalgic- referring to, explaining, or defending the past. By nature great companies are always looking forward. They appreciate and are rooted in the past, focus on the moment but look forward particularly when it comes to strategy. There is little gained in direction setting when time is wasted referring to, explaining, blaming or defending the past. This usually comes out when someone gets a little defensive about prior decisions. You should learn from and build off the past but the past shouldn’t limit the way you analyze the future.
6- Providing critique instead of providing solutions. As you know this is a pet peeve of mine, executives thinking that their greatest contribution to the company is being critical of ideas without proposing any solutions. And what can often happen in a strategy session is that this approach becomes a communal experience ending in a feeding frenzy of sorts. Beyond the critique of solutions being offered be prepared to spend more time in creating the best way forward.
7-Embracing designed vagueness. This means throwing out impressive sounding platitudes without the detail or clear direction to make them meaningful. For example I will often hear that the company should have ‘managed growth” because growth at all costs is bad and that no growth is bad. Sounds great on the surface — and hard to argue with — but what direction does that statement really provide? So do not stop at platitudes: explore and define the actual ideas underneath.
So how do you avoid the approaches above? Often by just putting them out there you take away their power and willingness of people to utilize them. Some organizations will identify these traps and call their peers out on them when any of the approaches are being employed—sometimes with gentle words and sometimes with a crumpled piece of paper.
It is imperative to choose a direction because by choosing a direction you now have an actual course to correct. Your direction should be clear and strong but at the same time not inflexible or untouchable. By avoiding the above temptations a direction that is intentional and deliberate can guide your company, even in the toughest times.