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When the book came out, I rolled my eyes at the title. I had been frustrated about strategy books being largely corporate centred and less and less relevant to my needs, so chose not to delve any further — ‘‘you can lead a horse to water’’, as they say.
Having read the book, I can now explain my cynicism and describe why I was so completely over putting together business plans that were 90% irrelevant within a few months.
Such an approach works in large businesses where the game is to dominate market share within a sector/s and when the future is predictable. This type of strategy is described in the book as ‘‘classical’’, with top-down decision-making — from the board — to C-suite — to team members.
Funnily enough, it has been 15 years since I was in an organisation like that. Add to that, at the moment, predicting next week, let alone three years away, is nigh impossible for any organisation — it might be time to plan in a different way, classical structure or not. Which begs the question: what does strategic planning look like for a smaller organisation, with an uncertain future, where a Covid bomb, or equivalent, could detonate our best-laid plans at any point?
A strategy for your organisation may look completely different to mine and in the book they work through several well thought out structures (please read for yourself). I won’t summarise here, but I will point out an observation — that decision-making is on a ‘‘go-slow’’ across the country and that is not conducive to organisational success, or for those relying on those decisions.
Often in organisations, quite simple decisions require staff to take ‘‘papers or reports’’ through multiple organisational layers where inevitably someone will say ‘‘we need more data’’, to which the cycle begins again. The ‘‘decision’’ eventually peters out because no-one can be bothered writing another paper for another non-decision.
To make matters worse, in a complex, unpredictable environment, data from the past may not even help — in fact it may be a hinderance, causing people to cling to the past. We have all heard and probably said ourselves, ‘‘but we’ve always done it this way’’. In this fast-changing environment, we need to learn to make decisions with imperfect data and no guarantee of success — wow, scary!
Organisations which do that by placing speed and agility ahead of ‘‘correctness’’ may come out of this pandemic in the best shape of all. Change doesn’t have to be an enormous company ‘‘pivot’’; it may be about being willing to try something new, test it, and quickly scale if it works, or try something else if it doesn’t. Another strategy may be to increase collaboration with like-minded companies which are facing the same external pressures.
For my start-up business, we are adopting what the book describes as an ‘‘adaptive strategy’’, where it’s all about trial, error and speed. Understanding this has been key for shareholder decisions and planning and day-to-day operations. Understanding this has revolutionised my confidence in what we are doing and the direction we are taking. It feels like I am finally free of the expectation of classical strategic plans — hallelujah, I wish I had read the book five years ago.
I understand that start-ups are different from established businesses. An adaptive approach is not for everyone, and the book describes other strategies — shaping, visionary or a combination. Regardless of your strategy, I will ask you to consider this: if you are in a decision-making position, next time you go to ask someone for more data or information, ask yourself first: will new data actually help our decision-making?
How crucial is the decision in terms of progress of the business? What are we holding up by delaying the decision? And finally, are we asking for new data because we really need it or are scared of getting the decision wrong? If we are scared of making the wrong decision, what are the consequences and how can we minimise them?
As we battle the pandemic, technical changes and even disruption, uncertainty is everywhere we turn. We will make great decisions and we will make poor decisions, but perhaps the most important decision of all is to make one in the first place!
- Anna Campbell is the co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agri-technology company.