Is vague strategy detracting from your intended results?
Strategy is a confusing concept to many leaders. Specifically, what strategy is and their role in the process.
Vision, mission, values, and tactics are often mistaken for strategy.
Each serves a necessary function of the strategic planning process. However, these components alone do not form a strategy.
- Vision is where you want to go in the future—the where.
- Mission is what you are doing now to make the vision a reality—the what.
- Values are beliefs you hold about the way you work and live—the beliefs.
- Tactics are the actions you take in support of the strategy—the how.
For the sake of simplicity, let's examine strategy as if your goal is to make bread as a means of making friends in a new community.
Imagine you recently moved for a new job. A colleague invites you to a dinner party, and community engagement has always been an essential aspect of your social life.
You want to be accepted in this new community. Unfortunately, you haven't made friends in the area. This dinner party is your first opportunity to meet people in the community.
You intend to bring something practical and delicious that won't outdo the host. You decide to make bread, but you've never made it before. How hard could it be? You've made cookies plenty of times.
First, you gather the ingredients from the pantry. You start with a clean surface. Next, you pour flour into a bowl, add warm water, sugar, and salt. Finally, you mix and form a dough. After kneading, you let it sit for an hour to rise.
When you check the dough, something's not right. It hasn't risen. You check the recipe and realize you forgot to add yeast. But the party is starting soon–there's no time to start over. You'll have to compromise by stopping at the store.
Alas, the only option is a package of gluten-free dinner rolls.
You may believe the above scenario is an oversimplification. And you're right. Too often, we aren't able to examine complex situations because we haven't learned the basics. Let's take a closer look.
- Your vision is to become a prominent member of the new community.
- Your mission is to make meet people at the party.
- You value community, initiative, and perseverance.
- Your tactic is to pick up pre-made rolls when things don't go as planned.
Yet, a vital component went missing from the process.
Decision-making lies at the heart of strategy.
An effective strategy sets clear guidelines for what to do, and equally important, what not to do. Yet, many leaders avoid choosing where to focus their efforts.
In the scenario above, you chose not to follow a recipe. Your strategy was to make bread and bring it to the party, but you didn't decide which type of bread to make. Had you chosen a specific type of bread, you would have likely selected a recipe to follow.
Effective strategy defines how to treat obstacles and opportunities.
By following a recipe, a major obstacle would have presented itself. You didn't have any yeast. Because you operated from memory, you overlooked the missing component.
Values serve as a diagnostic check for strategy.
Core values represent what you believe. Aspirational values represent the person/business you want to be. It's essential to have a mix of core values.
Over-reliance on core values can leave you stuck in the past or present. Too many aspirational values can lead you into a case of mistaken identity. A good rule of thumb is to perform a values check before making a major decision.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this decision violate our current beliefs?
- Is this decision in line with the person/business we want to become?
In the scenario above, a values check alerts you to take the initiative to follow a recipe. The recipe is there to highlight the missing ingredient. You then have the option to visit the store or choose a recipe that didn't require yeast. Instead, you set an arbitrary goal of baking bread without an effective strategy.
A good strategy avoids arbitrary goals.
A good strategy follows a logical sequence of actions, processes, and resources to accomplish an intended result. Goals that don't follow these guidelines are arbitrary and therefore unnecessary. What's worse is that arbitrary goals detract from your intended purpose.
By setting goals that aren't in line with your desired outcome, you as the leader create confusion as to what's most important. Working toward arbitrary goals creates frustration for the leaders, stakeholders, and employees.
First, you become frustrated when meaningful progress towards your intended result doesn't occur. Second, employees become frustrated as they discover the work they have performed wasn't necessary or impactful. Next, stakeholders become frustrated when they realize resources are being depleted without adding sufficient value.
In the scenario above, you are frustrated that you've made the wrong bread. In the end, you had to stop by the store to buy an off-the-shelf product. This won't produce the outcome you desired, and it creates anxiety.
You become convinced people will consider the rolls lazy. After arriving, you drop the rolls off at the food counter. Your anxiety grows as you slink into a corner.
Strategy requires leaders to make hard choices.
Great leaders are capable and willing to say no to activities that don't support the intended result. Strategy is just as much about what an organization chooses not to do as it is about what it actually does.
Decision-making is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership. No one wants to be wrong when decisions are complex, and stakes are high.
As a result, we tend to make the following strategic errors:
- Keep Options Open: Perhaps some unexpected opportunity will arrive. It's better to cast a wide net and see what the tide brings in.
- Make it Vague: People will figure it out, and if they don't, it's not your fault. Someone else failed to execute.
- Stall for Time: Maybe the problem will go away on its own. Things will get better. Let's give it some time, you think.
Open-ended, vague, or prolonged decisions create confusion among stakeholders and employees. Frustration and anxiety grow as people work toward different meanings, understandings, and deadlines.
The more clarity you can provide––the better your team is prepared to help make your vision a reality. You won't always have all the answers. But, you must work to design guidelines that help your team succeed.
Fortunately, the scenario above has a happy ending.
Suddenly, you hear someone shout—"Yes! These are my favorite dinner rolls."
You shuffle over to make an introduction. Your blunder turns into a quirky story, and you make new friends. Luck was on your side today. But the whole ordeal could have been much less stressful.