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The strategy of saying no
In companies large and small, in public organizations and private firms, strategic planning keeps executives awake at night. We spend hours in meetings developing a vision and setting objectives. Hours more will be spent reviewing budgets and resources. A ton of work goes into presenting the strategy: the executive presentations, the inspiring company memo, the new collateral from marketing. And then …
Strategy execution sucks. In private enterprise and the public sector alike, the majority of programs seem to fail. But why? There are common themes among :
Employees don’t understand the strategy.
Budgets are not aligned with strategy. Neither are incentives.
Strategy is not discussed much after it has been defined.
Boards don’t hold executives accountable for strategy, only for results.
Employees often don’t understand strategy because they are not really the audience it addresses. Many organizations talk down to their staff. Strategy is delivered as a fait accompli: the work of trained and compensated executives who really understand these things. Employees receive a watered-down version intended to motivate them without enabling them to have much input, push-back or criticism. One rarely meets employees who feel much confidence in their strategy; even more rarely do they feel any sense of ownership.
But why is strategy so quickly forgotten? And what about budgets, incentives and accountability?
The truth is, strategy is rarely abandoned, we simply drift away from it. We find ourselves in a territory we never intended to enter.
Of course no one just throws the whole proposal away. We hold on to our action lists and our objectives. Yet changing events and new circumstances lead us away from our original policies and so long as we are hitting short-term numbers, we don’t worry much if we are actually executing on long-term strategy.
As a result, we often shift focus to actions that lead us off-course, although they may feel right at the time. Tempting opportunities may not fit the plan, but they look easy or profitable and we follow them anyway. Why? Because we missed something critical from our strategy definition …
The clearest indicator of sound strategy is knowing what you are not going to do.
The goal of non-goals
Most of our strategic plans are built around what we intend to do. But I suggest you also need a useful definition of what you are not going to do. If your strategy is to attract thousands of customers to a moderately-priced subscription service - and you believe in this - then also be clear that you will not sign up a major enterprise deal on special terms, because this only will lead you off-course. Equally, if your success relies on selling to major enterprises, don’t be distracted by some easy wins in the mid-market.
This is not to say you must be rigidly tied to a set of plans even if you find the market or your circumstances moving in a different direction. You need flexibility, but that should be a conscious agility and can be built into the strategy too as alternatives.
In every plan I work on, from a single-feature specification to a multi-year corporate strategy, I insist on at least one simple paragraph describing non-goals. Like any other element of your proposal, non-goals require research, work and negotiation. But once you have crafted this clear map of where you will not go, the journey becomes much easier.
When you know how to say no, you are less likely to run into dangerously attractive offers that hide unexpected problems. With a good set of non-goals it also easier to evaluate your original strategy, because you will be following it more clearly and with more responsibility.
Of course, things go wrong in any project. Non-goals not only give you greater accountability, they also enable you to speak to mistakes and strategic errors with more authority and integrity. In contrast, when you drift away from your original strategy, the reasons why, the mis-steps along the way, and the consequences, are all much more confused.
In short, learn to say No when creating your plans. And ensure you make that clear in every strategy document.
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