One of the most difficult choices for anyone to make these days is what not to do. And it gets exponentially more challenging when a group of individuals is trying to do the same. We live in the age of abundance. There’s more information than we can ever process, more opportunities than we can ever seize, and we are acutely aware of more ills we can ever cure.
An increasingly common consequence of abundance is inaction: the number of choices overwhelms, and the time is spent sifting through information and recycling it. (I recently did a Hybrid Times Podcast with a youth researcher Leena Suurpää, who said that a significant reason for the mushrooming mental problems we see today among our youngsters is chronic inadequacy before all the possibilities the world has to offer.) For others, the solution is to buy into orthodoxy and use it as a sword to cut through the Gordian Knot that the world has become.
Coming up with a clear and actionable strategy is a challenge in this environment. Not that people don’t try. I’ve been busier than ever facilitating strategies and discussing them during the last few months. A strategy is supposed to show the way forward, but increasingly it is thought of as a tool to tackle confusion, discontent, societal pressures, and the paralyzing effect of abundance. This, I believe, makes a lot of sense. However, people often underestimate how much work it takes to reach clarity in a sea of possibilities and pressures.
I work with two kinds of strategies, those for foundations and those for businesses. At a glance, they are fundamentally different. A foundation has resources and wants to impose its will on the world. A business connects resources to a need it has spotted among potential customers. Since a strategy is fundamentally a plan on how to allocate resources, these two lead into two different approaches to do so. Foundations are supposed to allocate resources according to their own values and businesses according to their customers’ wishes.
However, in practice, the two are converging. Foundations must study the world and find how to maximize impact among real people. And businesses are expected to signal purpose and address societal ills while making a profit. In both cases, there is a lot on the table and many voices around it.
My favorite definition of a strategy comes from former Royal Gurkha officer and historian Emile Simpson: “Essentially strategy is the dialectical relationship, or the dialogue, between desire and possibility.” So when you sit at a strategy workshop, you must have a serious discussion about both – and how they interact.
Listing desires is a start and should not be inhibited much by real-life constraints. Let it all out. Without expansive desires – visions of change and increased impact – the exercise quickly becomes a defensive strategy. When the existence of an organization is threatened, there’s a place for this – choosing how to stay alive – but when a mature organization’s strategy is focused on incremental improvement, it is essentially a defensive one. Because it looks safe, most stakeholders may welcome it, but it makes the organization vulnerable to disruptive newcomers and changing environment.
After you have compiled a list of desires, you let in the realism. First, you sift through the wishes and choose what’s really desirable (rather than just fashionable). Then you weigh what’s attainable in the real world: you look at the competition, your target group and assess your risks and resources.
The key here is not just to get realistic and shoot down what feels impossible, but rather to find the thing that is most promising yet possible. If a desire that has potential and makes sense emerges, then deciding what not to do becomes more effortless. If not, the danger is that everyone will hold on to their pets and the strategy becomes a zoo rather than a team of horses.
Traditional business strategy is a choice of where to play (product category, geographic or demographic market, etc.) and how to win (with price, quality, distribution, service, etc.). You can’t do it all at once; you make choices.
Contemporary strategy is also a choice of where you think you can make a difference (in carbon footprint or handprint, equality, inclusion, etc.) and then how to play (aggressively, smoothly, alone, cooperatively, etc.). So, while everything may feel important, everything cannot be a priority or a strategic advantage.
You must choose. Strategy is a lever, not a balancing act.
Jaakko Tapaninen | Great Point Ltd
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