Good Strategy is Rooted in Deep Understanding
In lots of facets of my work, I often find myself having to convince people of the value of deep consultation. The barriers are twofold here I think:
1.It is harder and takes more time
2.There is fear about what you might find out
There is a concept in Innovation Engineering that I find really useful here: genuine curiosity. You have to be genuinely curious about what you are solving for.
For strategy, this often means supporting teams to make choices about their biggest problems and opportunities. Do you really, truly, deeply understand what is getting in the way of your success? Is it an internal problem or external? Is it widespread?
On the revenue side, are you brave enough to ask customers who have left you why they did? What about those customers who might leave you? A major barrier here is the fear of a difficult conversation – “are you happy with our product or service?”, “what could we do to get more of your business?”, “what would be so much of a wow, you would be willing to pay more for it?”. Asking these questions and being genuinely curious about the answers can redefine your focus. Without asking your customers directly, are you assuming you know? I heard someone once call this “assumicide” – yep, pretty much.
This may sound granular, but it is one (of many) critical piece of any strategy process. Your stakeholders may have crucial insight into what you are doing right and wrong, and what opportunities lie ahead.
In the strategy work I do, I suggest a few tactics that help with this deep understanding:
- Have genuinely curious conversations early on with internal AND external stakeholders. If you can, include some who do NOT think highly of you.
- Invite diversity into the room for strategic discussions – and give permission for those with less power to be honest without repercussion. This amps up insights exponentially.
- Test your assumptions and your draft strategies with those who will have to implement it. Strategy is a journey, not a destination. Don’t wait for the glossy print job to share with your team what you are thinking. Be genuinely curious about their feedback.
Genuine curiosity builds a culture of learning and engagement that will empower your people. It will also help with buy-in on your strategy – because your stakeholders will feel they helped drive it.
Save Your Strength For the Tough Decisions
My good friend Hal and his wife have been married for 50 years. He told me the secret to their marriage is that early on they agreed: She would be in charge of all the small decisions in their life, and he would handle all the big decisions. In 50 years of marriage, they just haven’t had any big decisions yet! He is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to demonstrate his decision-making prowess after all these years…! Put me in coach – he says – I’m ready.
In this world of ever increasing noise, complexity and uncertainty, I often see organizations get lost in all of the decisions they are confronted with every day. Particularly, I see teams struggling to differentiate between big decisions and small decisions. High risk versus low risk.
What usually happens is that teams and leaders spend far too much time debating and re-hashing relatively small, low risk, ultimately insignificant issues, and never leave enough time, space, or brain trust for the big, complicated, truly important decisions.
Looking at this another way – what problems are worth solving in the first place? There are two kinds we should think about that are the centre of many debates – infrequent problems that have huge consequences, and frequently occurring small problems. The car seat was invented as a response to the first kind – car accidents hurting kids happen relatively infrequently, but they are catastrophic when they do. The beer cozy was invented in response to the second kind – how often has your beer gone warm on a cold day? Both of these problems are worth solving – and consumers will support both.
Organizations are pretty good at solving the catastrophic problems that occur frequently (or they would be out of business). They still fall victim to solving problems that maybe shouldn’t be tackled in the first place. And they struggle to prioritize which of their problems should be solved in what order of priority.
Do you have a way to make decisions about making decisions? It might be the best decision you make this year.
This can be a simple process. For example, I recently witnessed a group of leaders eliminate a handful of projects in their pipeline once they realized these were put there by a ‘squeaky wheel’ – one customer who complained loudly, but who wasn’t necessarily representative of others. So instead, they decided to see how frequently this problem occurred. The decision – if n=1, we do nothing. Awesome.
Or take it to the next level: Innovation Engineering offers a great solve for this – a problem survey. This tool helps you assess what problems happen frequently, and what problems have really negative impacts when they happen. The tool plots the problems out to help you prioritize. Maybe even more important, it helps you weed out ideas that happen so infrequently or are so inconsequential that you probably should not bother in the first place.
Find a system that helps you leave more room for those big, high risk decisions that deserve all your energy, focus and collective brain trust.
Innovation is about making choices. Even when they are hard. Especially when they are hard. Make sure you save enough bench strength for the biggies.
Walk The Walk
I recently witnessed something amazing. When discussing a new program to help some of society’s most vulnerable, a team member asked whether current customers might frown on this. What about a ‘bad headline’ that sticks with our customers, they asked?
The CEO responded, without hesitation, “I’ve fired customers before. This is the right thing to do”. And just like that, I witnessed a natural values-driven leader in action.
Another co-founder of a successful start-up recently shared with me that, when he was starting his company, his partner insisted they spend time defining their values as a company. At the time he thought it was a pain in the rear. Years down the road, and 20 hires later, he reflects back on that as the best time he spent. He now grounds every conversation he has with his team back to these values. This is the case for positive conversations: “Great job being a real team player”, and in the case of disciplinary conversations: “Does your behaviour reflect our commitment to excellence?”. Every day, in every conversation, he commits to living their values, and teaches his team to do the same.
Being a values-driven leader comes naturally to some, like our first example, and for others, it takes work. Both are heroes.
Corporate values are a funny thing. They are the biggest of words: FAIRNESS, ACCOUNTABILITY, TEAM WORK, EXCELLENCE, FUN. And yet they actually come alive in small, everyday actions. You don’t just say you are fun…you have to BE fun – every day for it to mean something.
A leader who I admire greatly shared with me that building a culture based on values is all about knowing when to intervene as a leader. His example was HR departments who tend to want to fire people inhumanely. Escort them out of the building. The problem for your culture (other than the hurtful effect on the person getting fired) is that the people left in the building witness this too. They see how little value the organization places on its people. And they remember. The leader needs to know when to step in and say “No, you can’t do that”. Because it doesn’t reflect our values as a company.
Whether you formally define them, know them instinctively, or know them when you see them, either way, good or bad, your values are defined by your actions. Living them every day may be THE most important work. Because, believe me, your employees are watching.