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Why Most Executives Don’t Get Strategy

Dozens of strategic frameworks have come and gone over time. They seem to gain fashion, get a lot of press, make a lot of money for a few consultants, and then they’re just replaced by next season’s fashion. That’s what keeps the “fashion show” going: leaders keep trying the latest fad and keep trying new consultants in the hopes of creating a winning strategy.

It’s frustrating because leaders know they need a solid strategic plan in order to provide clear a direction for their company, to align their team, and maximize productivity. Often, they also know that getting an outside facilitator and a structured process to follow can help them to determine what their strategy should be. I think that’s why business leaders keep hiring strategic consultants: it is very difficult, on your own, to identify the moves you need to make to set your company up for future success in your industry, and to balance these long-term moves with what you need to do on a day to day basis to run and optimize the business model you have right now.

Now, full disclosure, I oversee the strategic planning consulting that we include with our platform, so I’m biased towards our own methodology. We use best practice research from the world’s leading universities, and combine that with 20 years of practical experience, creating and implementing strategy for thousands of our clients.

We have the rare privilege of being able to observe thousands of client firms creating and executing their strategic plans. We get to see what works and what doesn’t work in the real world over a large number of business cases and from there we are able to identify the best practices of our most successful firms.

The Strategy “Sniff Test”

I’ve found a great strategy “sniff test” to help executives evaluate whether or not they actually have a strategy. Simply look at what you think is a long-term strategic move and ask, “Could we do the exact opposite, and would that also be a valid strategy?”

If doing the opposite of your stated strategic move would be stupid or nonsensical, then it is not really a strategic move at all. It is simply a table stakes requirement for doing business in your industry. It is likely to be something that many of your competitors will also be doing.

Your strategic move should be something that will help you to establish a competitive advantage. A strategic move should help you to create a category or a niche in your industry where you can genuinely claim a position of leadership, or a meaningful point of difference. A strategic move should make it very clear what you are going to say “Yes” to, and by association what you are saying “No” to, and what you are not going to do.

This is where I see many companies fail at strategic planning. Their stated strategies often include generic fluff like, “Provide best in class customer service.” Well duh, really? So the opposite of that would be to provide poor customer service, and that would also be a valid strategy?  I don’t think so.

Bigger, better, faster is not strategy! Many companies haven’t actually made any strategic choices at all. In short, their strategy stinks!

Take a look at your long-term strategic moves now, and give them the “sniff test”.  I’m betting a few of you will realize you still have more work to do. That’s why we take our clients through a disciplined strategic thinking and decision making process to help them make “real” strategic decisions.

The Quarterly Strategic Review

Conducting a quarterly strategic review is one of the most important components of your company meeting rhythms. One question that many clients ask is: "Why do we have to update our strategic plan every quarter?" The answer is simple: "Things change" - and your plan must always be a true reflection of the current reality.

These review sessions are critical because they help you stay focused but flexible. Reviewing your strategic plan reminds every employee about who you are as a company, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. These review sessions provide the big picture context for their own day-to-day activities, including the projects they are working on and metrics they are measured on every quarter.

They know what the company stands for, what the company sells, what you are trying to accomplish, and for whom. This empowers them to make better decisions on their own, provide each other with more effective guidance, and be more productive.

Engaging employees in the quarterly strategic review process has a profoundly positive impact on their buy-in and alignment, especially if it’s constantly reinforced during weekly meetings and daily communications. It makes them feel welcomed into the common effort to build a company. It gives them a sense of ownership.

Note: Quarterly strategic review sessions require that you have a well thought out long-term strategy to begin with. They are, afterall, called a “review.”

If you need help to create and execute your winning strategy we have created a brand new version of our highly regarded online strategic planning template. It contains video workshops and workbooks to guide your leadership team through our proven strategic decision-making process.