You’ve got a problem; so, you think about it. Maybe do a bit of research too. Perhaps you even seek advice from others. You develop a strategy for tackling the problem … only to have the strategy be incomplete or not useful nearly immediately. Now, you are in ‘emergency mode’ where you have to pivot quickly to develop a new strategy on the fly.
We’ve all been there. And after the problem is solved, we think – what went wrong? I’m smart and have a good strategy.
The problem is that leaders need to move beyond strategy to achieve success.
In this article, I’ll discuss the additional elements needed to achieve success because strategy alone does not win.
Be More Strategic
Strategy is a bit of buzz word in organizations and corporations. Colleagues use it all the time. You may have heard phrases like:
- What’s your strategy?
- Which strategic goal does this align with?
- When will we begin the strategic planning process for 2023?
- What are our strategic goals for this quarter?
While leaders use the word strategy daily, what does that really mean?
I once had someone suggest that I be more strategic. I asked her what she meant by strategic. How did she define strategy? She couldn’t answer.
What is Strategy?
While there are a variety of definitions online, the overarching principle is about planning to achieve a goal in a focused and deliberate way. That is super squishy, with little clarity on how to get there.
It seems that much time is spent on strategy. And then, when the strategy is shared, one of two things happens: 1) the content is so generic that it doesn’t have substance, or 2) it begins to crumble shortly after implementation because some obvious factors weren’t considered.
No wonder people roll their eyes when planning-lovers (like me) start talking about planning. (Yes – I see you!) However, I appreciate seeing that eye roll (not kidding). Because it lets me know that you are interested in strategic planning, as long as it is not the same old tedious planning.
Leaders spend a ton of time on strategy and strategic planning. So why don’t efforts perform as well given tons of strategic planning? That’s because it is missing some dynamic, real-time elements. And – most importantly – leaders need to go beyond strategy to achieve success. Literally – strategy is just ONE element.
#1 Identify your Goal
It sounds a bit simple, but this is an important step. Identify your goal. Get specific. Yes, you want to increase your numbers. But which ones? By how much? Is that ambitious enough? Could you stretch and push the goal a bit further without intimidating everyone, so the goal is impossible?
When taking golf lessons, the instructor said that when first learning to play golf, most people undershoot the hole. (I’m more of a Putt-Putt player, J but the principles are the same.) So, one of the best habits you can get into is to aim to overshoot. He said if you undershoot, you will miss the hole 100% of the time. If you overshoot, you might miss the hole, but at least you have a chance of making it.
The parallel to setting goals really stuck with me. What if we overshoot and end up going further than anticipated? At a minimum, we’ll get closer to our goals and perhaps even surprise ourselves.
Let’s take this one step further. After identifying your goal, say it out loud. First to yourself. Listen to how it sounds. Do you believe it? Did you get excited about it? If so, great! If not, try to refine the goal so that you believe it. This is important so that when you say it to others, they feel the conviction in your voice – even if you are equal parts excited and terrified by the goal.
#2 Develop your Strategy
Now with your goal identified, it is time to start developing a strategy. Many leaders and organizations spend considerable resources on developing a strategy – both time and people. In the strategy phase, leaders have developed a lot of ‘time on task.’ And this is where many of leaders stop (see the wavy line in the framework). But achieving success is more than strategy. As such, I won’t take deep dive into strategy here. Instead, I’ll move to the subsequent phases that folks either race through or skip altogether, which results in lackluster outcomes.
#3 Define the Sequence of Events
Sequence of events is critical. This is the point at which the goal is at a ‘make-it or break-it’ stage. Get this part wrong (and many do), and it is nearly impossible to recover.
At this point, you’ve probably shared the goal and strategy with your team. And because you usually think of award-winning ideas, your team is excited to start. However, everyone mustn’t race off to work on their part of the project.
Yes – you read that right. Everyone should NOT race off into separate corners working on the project on their timetable and in silos.
There must be a sequence of events. If a part of the project is done too early, there is a risk of that portion being outdated or not compatible with other elements that need to be done first. Consider a group Thanksgiving dinner where multiple people contribute a dish (Goal).
The sequence of events is critical for the best outcome (i.e., the most delicious meal possible). Since it is a group event, the host asks what everyone would like to bring so that there are a variety of items (Strategy) – rather than eight different types of potatoes (not that there is anything wrong with that).
It is important that the turkey be thawed a few nights before Thanksgiving Day so that it cooks properly in the oven. If the people assigned to make side dishes for dinner (e.g., rolls, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole) started making them when the turkey was being defrosted, the sides would taste like they were days old and not fresh. As a result, the optimal experience is lost because the sequence of events didn’t occur.
Yes, the goal may be partially met (dinner is served), but it could have been so much better if everyone cooked their dish in an organized sequence. The same is true for the goals in your organization.
Therefore, after identifying the goal and sharing the strategy, take sufficient time to outline the sequence of events for optimal success. And endure that each team member knows when they should begin. Team members need not just resist the temptation to get started on their portion of the project – but it is required that they wait until their turn in the planned sequence. Otherwise, the entire group may undershoot the goal.
#4 Create Mini-Strategies
Each event in the sequence should have its own strategy. These become the mini-strategies of the main project. This can often be an overlooked phase because leaders who developed the project strategy keenly understand how all the pieces need to come together, but they often are not experts with the next layer below (nor should they be).
This is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with each person assigned to the sequence of events to develop the mini-strategies for their event. Mini-strategies are effective for the eager beavers as well as the laggards.
For the eager beavers that can’t help themselves in getting started on their portion of the project – even if their contribution is further downstream, they can feel like they are actively participating by getting started with their mini-strategy. I always like to harness enthusiasm for progress; mini-strategies are a great way to do it.
Laggards can often get overwhelmed with many moving parts, so mini-strategies help them break the project into bite-sized chunks that seem more doable. And, very importantly, especially if the laggards are critical to an earlier task (e.g., making the turkey), mini-strategies increase the likelihood of folks early in the sequence of events having their part completed on time. Otherwise, the folks later in the sequence will be pressed for time. Thus, decreasing the likelihood of achieving the most optimal results possible.
#5 Consider First Impressions
First impressions are key for the roll-out of the strategy and each mini-strategy (not each person). How the project, strategy, and mini-strategies are presented at each stage can significantly influence how the effort is received by the team members that will work on the project. As a result, the project outcome will be determined.
Using another food analogy, when a plate of food is nicely presented with vibrant colors, it looks more appetizing. The saying ‘we eat with our eyes first’ is over 150 years old. The phrase not only still rings true today, but it also applies to more than just food.
Contrast an appealing plate of food to one that is monotone and haphazardly plated. It doesn’t inspire good things to come.
And the same is true for presenting the strategy and each mini-strategy to the team members involved. So, consider your first impressions when engaging your team members. Taking a few extra minutes to present the material in an appealing way will increase the team members’ enthusiasm and quality of work – and ultimately have a significant impact on the project outcome.
#6 Evaluate & Adjust
I’m a huge advocate of planning. Yes — I’m a planning-lover. And – a BIG secret reveal – this is even happens to planning-lovers. Sometimes my plans don’t go accordingly to plan. Most people looking from the sidelines would never know that my plans didn’t work. That’s because evaluating & adjusting is a critical part of the process. This phase is more than just overlooked – most people didn’t know it existed!
At every point in the process (see image), it is important to evaluate and adjust. Every. Single. Point. Not just the beginning or end. Most people evaluate at the end of a project. And by then, the outcome is already a done deal. The opportunities for adjustments are over.
Let’s take an example of a simple project with five sequenced events. Each sequence of events has multiple mini-strategies. Let’s say a total of 13 mini-strategies. Each mini-strategy has one or more people involved. Rough estimate; let’s say 33 people are involved in the entire project. Again – this is a small project, yet we have 33 people involved.
If any of those 33 people have a negative experience at the first impression stage, the entire project is soured to a degree. It doesn’t mean the project is a complete failure – but the outcome is less than optimal. It must be. The first impression was crummy, so the work and contribution from that one person are significantly compromised.
So, as part of the evaluate & adjust phase, it is important to constantly scan each part of the entire process (goal, strategy, sequence of events, mini-strategy, and first impressions) to evaluate for anything that didn’t go accordingly to plan because it has to be adjusted immediately. Not at your earliest convenience – immediately. The longer that the issue festers, the greater the likelihood it the issue will spread into other parts of the project. Thus, making more adjustments needed.
You might be wondering, ‘how often are adjustments needed’? All. The. Time. Think about it – how often do you or someone on your team have a bad day? Bad night’s sleep? Unanticipated problem? In a team of 33 – you are lucky if it is only one person in a day. So – the likelihood of a leader unintentionally delivering a poor first impression or the team member having a bad day and perceiving a negative first impression of the project is (not might) going to happen at some point. It is important to spot early warning signs.
I’ve spent plenty of time doing damage control with team members that received a poor first impression. While we never get a second chance to make a first impression, it is important to try to improve the impression – and with urgency. Communication, working with the impacted team members, and making adjustments to the mini-strategies, are all in my toolbox for getting the project back on course to achieve optimal results.
Take Action — Progress over Perfection
I’ll end this article with some action steps for consideration for helping ambitious leaders put the ‘organize’ back in organizations.
- Share this article with your organization (e.g., co-workers, team members, supervisor, etc.).
- Include the article as a discussion item on your next team meeting agenda for infusion of these strategies in your team and/or organization’s current challenges.
- Think about the current projects you are working on at your organization. Which phases went well? Which phases didn’t receive enough attention? What 1-2 things can you do today to get the project back on course?
- What is the next project you (as an ambitious leader) can apply this framework to?
- Could the leaders in your organization use a boost in implementing this framework for your next quarter’s planning or 2023 planning? I can help your organization achieve its ambitious goals.
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