Down arrow

The Grey Area

March 28, 2023

Hold on; we're about to enter the grey area (but I promise it will make you a better strategic thinker.)

Since our last conversation, you may have started to appreciate a more process-driven and strategic approach to your ideas and your business. Both of these are wins in my book, AND as someone who essentially makes plans and solves problems for a living (I'm a business and leadership consultant), there are two things you need to know. 

1) Almost nothing ever goes 100% to plan

2) A strategy isn't a plan

While those two truths may have you wanting to return to your throwin’ spaghetti at the wall days, rest assured if you level up your approach to strategy, those are both easily remedied. 

When strategic thinking needs to level up

At one point in my career, I oversaw all store openings across North America. As you can imagine, a lot of planning went into opening stores. It wasn't uncommon for there to be at least a 40-page document meticulously documenting what would happen each step of the way. However, it only took one store opening for me to realize that no amount of planning could predict what would happen once my plane touched down and the countdown to open was on. 

Contractors not delivering, permit issues, product arriving late, the wrong product coming, me getting violently ill, unfinished fitting rooms. Yes, this all happened, and no, my 40-page document did not account for any of it. 

The unexpected issues taught me an important lesson, "planning is everything, and plans are nothing."  

Learning this can be unsettling initially, especially if plans give you a (false) sense of security. That is exactly why your plans need to be agile.

Think adaptive.

Agile Strategy 

Traditional strategy is often formulaic in its approach, planning in a rigid beginning, middle, and end format. All of which are often followed without question. Kind of like back in the day when you would ask “how come we’re doing this?” and your boss would say “because I said so.” It’s old school, ineffective, and often left you marching toward an unsuccessful outcome. 

While agile strategy is an admission that there's no possible way we could know everything. It embraces iteration the way a scientist would. After all, that's what business is, isn't it? 

Business is a series of (hopefully) thoughtful experiments that give us more data to make informed progress. 

On the off chance this sounds like word soup, think about agile strategy like climbing Everest. 

  • The strategy is likely to "get to the top alive in X amount of time." You know *most of how you're going to get there. You need gear, routes, food, oxygen, etc. And, some things could happen when you're at base camp. Ice falling, sudden weather shifts, and whatever else mother nature throws at you. These aren't obstacles; they are part of the environment. Rather than sticking to your original plans, you adapt; you choose a new route.

Business is a lot like this. It's a complex and ever-changing environment that cannot be predicted. 

So how does one stay agile without descending into chaos or adopting a "move fast and break things" culture? 

We stay focused on the experiment and the outcomes we hope to achieve. Experiments give you the feedback you need to validate that the actions you’re taking are steering you in the direction you want to go. 

How to stay Agile

Earlier, you heard me say, "a strategy isn't a plan." Allow me to elaborate. The first three steps in strategy are (the previous article outlines all 6 steps):

  • Observe
  • Direct 
  • Quantify

All three of these help shape your strategy. 

Remember: Strategy is "where" you're going. The tactics you apply shape "how" you will get there.

Your tactics are where you can experiment, in order to see which actions achieve your overall strategy. Creating meaningful check-in points in step six “reflect” (don’t forget to read the previous article to learn all 6 steps) will allow you to understand the new environment you find yourself in after your first experiment. 

The following three steps will help you better reflect after your initial experiment in order to see what adjustments need to be made. Remember your strategy will remain the same, but the tactics shift based on your experiments.

1. The Outcome: This is your opportunity to reflect on the outcomes of your experiments, digest the data, and generally see what happened! Most importantly, it's a chance to assess the impact of your strategy on the business and your customers. 

  1. What new data do you have? 
  2. What was the impact on the business?
  3. What was the impact on the team?
  4. What was the impact on our customers? 
  5. Were we able to realize our strategy? 

2. The Environment: This is your opportunity to survey the landscape. To see what has changed externally or even internally while you were running your experiments. This step will allow you to fully take stock of what has shifted so you can iterate effectively.

  1. What changed externally? What changed internally?
  2. What didn't change?
  3. How has the landscape changed since we started the experiment? What impact has this had on the business and our tactics?
  4. What might need to change internally to adapt to the new environment?

3. The Resourcing: Although resourcing sounds like funding as in ($$$), what I'm talking about is what do you, your people, your business, or your plans need to achieve your strategy successfully. 

  1. To realize your strategy, what needs to change in your business (think operations, process, etc.)? How do you change this?
  2. How might your people need to change to execute the strategy (think behaviors, roles, etc.)? How do you change this?
  3. How might you change (think empowering your people, encouraging collaboration, etc.)? How do you change this?

How Long To Test

I see you, and I'm just as impatient as you are. Unfortunately, SOS, also known as Shiny Object Syndrome, is a very real thing, and most leaders experience this to some degree. 

It takes practice to know when to adjust your strategy and when to sit tight and let time do its thing, so I thought I would give you a few pointers, so you know what to look for.

  • Generally, I would say to test for at least 90 days before you assess and collect data. The goal is to have enough data to pull from to get a more accurate read. Think about it like this. If you've only driven three times, and one out of those three times you hit a curb, you might think you're a lousy driver. But if you've gone 100 times and hit a curb once, you likely just had an off day. More data= more context.
  • I recommend shifting your strategy only if the external landscape has changed drastically before the 90-day mark. 
  • If your organization is constantly shifting its strategy, I would say you likely haven't spent enough time in the initial phases to be clear on where you want to go. Remember, the routes can change, but the destination should remain the same.

Above all remember you are a business scientist! Your resources are finite, and that is precisely why you should continue to experiment alongside your strategy. This practice ensures that the tactics you implement will help you stay agile, respond to changes in the environment, and successfully achieve your overall strategy.

What's Next?

In this series's third and final installment, we will tackle how you can iterate well. As always, if you're left with thoughts or questions, my inbox is always open here!

Search Pivot