Looking in all the Wrong Places? Ten Ways to Avoid Strategic Disaster

Watching professional sports reveals that players move, skate and dribble with their heads up to anticipate the next play and keep an eye on the goal and incoming threats. Focusing solely on the puck or ball invites someone else to clobber you into next week.

Successful organizations have a tendency towards strategic ossification. Success breeds confidence and reinforces an assumption that ‘we are on the right path’, making us resistant to changing course.

When American Express observed the unfolding financial crisis they responded with not only cost reductions (heads down execution), but a new strategy to drive growth through deposit income (heads up anticipation). The joint strategy drove them to huge success, paying back their government bailout loans well before the competition.

This underscores a few myths many executives believe:

i. A SWOT analysis is sufficient to prepare a strategy.
ii. Once developed, strategies do not need to be revisited until the next planning cycle.
iii. Strategies should be strong enough to remain viable for 3 or more years.
iv. Strategy renewal is typically evolutionary, building on the previous strategic platform.

Today’s athletes can do much more than 20 years ago. So can the competition. Rules have changed and so has the breadth of innovative thinking. Disruption can come from anywhere. And yes, SWOT analysis is too limited.

The enigmatic nature of strategy is that while it needs to be stable so people can latch on to it, it must also evolve as conditions change. Even in non-profits which are often characterized as slow to change, I worked with a client to draw up a strategic framework in two weeks. After circulating it, further feedback drove our first set of revisions. The strategy is solid, but it’s reviewed regularly to ensure the organization remains on track, and to determine if any assumptions or inputs have changed.

Today’s strategy moves like this:

We can all be victims of our success. How do companies avoid the tendency to lock-in? Here are ten critical areas to consider to keep your strategy nimble.

  1. Check the social fabric. What is trending on social media in terms of tastes, public anger, emerging interests?
  2. Track niche player success. Small players can serve targeted areas uniquely. Influential players can sway perceptions. What customer needs and trends does that reveal?
  3. Discuss how your closest competitor would go about putting you out of business.
  4. Review strategy from the perspective that the opposite of all of your assumptions are true.
  5. Draw insights from your people throughout the organization. Some employees monitor trends better than you do. Leverage their interests for insight.
  6. Invite smart people from other industries to review your strategy. Ask them how to disrupt it.
  7. Monitor demographics. They move a bit slower, but are a rich source of forecasting input. Immigration is of particular importance today.
  8. Consider worst case scenarios. Environmental events, resource availability changes, political shifts.
  9. Uncover what people are saying about you: Google yourself, check Glassdoor, visit forums where your product or service is reviewed.
  10. Explore how innovations by Amazon and Apple could be applied to your own strategy.

Changing Your Mind

If you are intent on growing and progressing, then you need a strategy, too. Each of the above items can be considered to determine actions needed to move towards your goals. For example:

  • How are you positioned if a dramatic change in leadership occurs around you?
  • What are your peers inside and outside the company doing to grow?
  • What are the trends in hiring and promotion in your firm? In other companies and industries?
  • How have your own values about work and life changed over time? Do they need revisiting?

Keep your head up. Staring at your feet as you walk will only land you a concussion.

Thoughtfully Yours,


Jeff works with growing businesses and aspiring non-profits to help them establish and execute leading strategies. He also works with executives who want to accelerate their growth. Learn more about Jeff here.

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