“We’re on a road to nowhere, come on inside. Taking that ride to nowhere, we’ll take that ride.” Talking Heads

If your team is working without a strategic road map for the business, you may feel like you’re living the lyrics to the Talking Heads’ song “Road to Nowhere” each and every day. What are the symptoms? A culture of fire drills, meetings with no stated purpose, constant haggling over price with customers, uncertainty as to what people are actually doing, and no common goals or strategies to achieve them.

Drawing tools lying over blueprint paper close-up

A study of 250,000 executives found that the number one role of a leader is setting strategic direction. But for many managers, there’s a cloud of angst hanging over this idea of setting strategic direction. Why? Done badly, strategy setting takes too long, creates rambling, unproductive meetings, and results in humongous PowerPoint slide decks that don’t have anything to do with people’s real-world work. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Having helped more than 100,000 managers set strategic direction for their business, I’ve found three key ingredients to successfully setting strategic direction: context, process, and road map.

  1. Context: Great leaders understand the importance of taking a mental snap shot of the current context of the business. The context includes a realistic assessment of where the business is today and why, painting a picture of the desired future state, and identifying the challenges and trade-offs on the path to their destination. In facilitating strategic planning sessions with executive leadership teams, I’ve seen many instances of new insights and connections occurring during these context conversations as managers get on the proverbial same page of the business.
  2. Process: When it comes to process, managers often find themselves on one end or the other of a spectrum: working in a company that has no formal strategy process or working in one where it’s all about the process and not about the end result of clear and concise direction. In the former situation, managers have zero consistency in approach with one another and are slapping random slides together in hopes they form a coherent strategy. In the latter situation, it becomes about feeding a process and checking boxes in hopes of getting back to one’s real work. I’ve remedied these issues by developing a simple and concise process for setting strategic direction that’s highly interactive and stimulates new thinking that leads to differentiated strategies.
  3. Road Map: If you don’t currently have a 1-2 page document that outlines your strategic direction, the question you need to ask is, “Why?” It’s not hard to do. In fact, if you’ve assessed the context and followed a proven strategy process, it’s actually the easiest aspect of setting strategic direction. It’s also incredibly valuable as it gives you and your team a unified approach to the business. What does that unity mean? It means there’s consistency in allocating resources, making decisions, and executing strategies that lead to profitable competitive advantage.

A troop of Hungarian soldiers were on military maneuvers in the Alps when they became lost. It snowed for two days. They were cold and hungry and as day three approached, they were resigned to the fact that they may not make it out alive. Then on the brink of death, one of the soldiers found a map buried deep in his back pack. The detachment got their bearings, pulled themselves up, and followed the map out of the Alps to safety. When they returned to camp, the commanding officer asked how they finally found their way out. The soldier pulled out the map and laid it on the table. The commanding officer discovered, to his astonishment, that it was not a map of the Alps, but a map of the Pyrenees, an entirely different mountain range.

The important thing is not always having the exact right map, because we won’t. The important thing is to develop our strategic thinking and planning capabilities, so that we’ll always have what we need to overcome our challenges and achieve success, right here, in our mind.

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