Strategy’s Dirty Secret

When is the last time you said no to an internal request? If you can’t recall, there’s a good chance you’re a tactical order-taker. Being a tactical order-taker is fine if you’re working the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant, but not so good if you’re leading an organization. The dirty secret about being “strategic” within an organization is that you’re going to say no and tick some people off. Get over it.

We know that having a sound strategy includes trade-offs. Trade-offs are when you choose to focus on one initiative, customer, etc. at the expense of others. In externally-facing functions like sales and marketing, good leaders are constantly making trade-offs with customers by targeting certain segments and ignoring others. This isn’t done to be cavalier. It’s done because a product or service offering brings more value to some segments than others and a sales team’s time and budget are limited. Apple CEO Tim Cook echoes this sentiment when he says, “And we argue and debate like crazy about what we’re not going to do, because we know that we can only do a few things great … That’s a part of our base principle, that we will only do a few things.”

The idea of prioritizing when it comes to internal initiatives and customers brings a shudder to many. “We couldn’t possibly say no,” is the common response. It’s also the response of the mediocre. Great leaders understand that trade-offs involve decisions, and the word decision means “to cut off.” If you have trees on your property, you realize that every few years you must prune, or cut off, some of the low branches? Why? To promote new growth.

The same is true for your business. In order to grow new competencies, capabilities and offerings, you’ll need to cut off your investment of time, talent and budget in areas that are simply not bringing as much value as they once did. Continually servicing one-off requests that don’t directly support your goals is a good example of a lack of strategic discipline. As Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said, “When I meet with the founders of a new company, my advice is almost always, ‘Do fewer things.’ The vast majority of things are distractions and very few really matter to your success.”

The key to instilling this level of discipline to focus resources in the few areas that drive the most value for your internal customers is to carve out time to think. The reality is if you don’t give yourself permission and time to think, it simply won’t happen. Leaders unwilling to dedicate time to thinking about the development of their business are prone to fire drills. The fire drill is when people stop purposeful work that is guided by their strategic plan and rush to take care of something urgent that just popped up. If the urgent issue is also important, then naturally it should be taken care of. Unfortunately, many fires are urgent but unimportant. Yet, they still get lots of attention, which wastes valuable time, people, and budget.

Accomplished leaders understand that strategic thinking drives effective resource allocation and eliminates fire drills. The three disciplines of advanced strategic thinking provide a framework for inspiring high-level thinking on a regular basis. These three disciplines can act as a guide to elevate one’s thinking out of the day-to-day tactics:

1. Coalesce: What are the key insights that will bring new value to my customers?

2. Compete: How will these insights lead to advantage for our organization?

3. Champion: What behaviors do we need to develop to execute our strategy?

Being a true strategic partner to the rest of the organization requires leaders to make trade-offs, avoid fire drills and generate new insights. Saying yes to every request that comes through isn’t leadership; it’s tactical order-taking. Doing the same things in the same ways as all the other organizations in your industry is the very definition of mediocrity. Excellence requires deviation from the norm. Continually developing unique value should be at the heart of your strategy. What are you and your team doing differently that’s bringing new value to the organization? If you can’t answer that question, then I’ll have a large fry to go.