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Graham Birkenhead, July 21 2020

Swimming in Circles?

I love open water swimming, the fresh air, the peace and quietness, the natural smell of water rather than chlorine, and having the sense of going somewhere rather than bouncing off a wall every few strokes.  As you swim along with your head down, you are thinking about what your body is doing and how efficiently you are moving through the water, if it’s nice clear water, you may occasionally get distracted by a fish passing underneath.   But what is absolutely crucial, is every so often you have to stick your head up and take a look around and make sure you are heading in the right direction.   If you don't do that, you literally go round in circles; they could be very efficient circles, but still not getting you where you need to go.   The other reason you need to take a look is you don't know what is in your way or coming at you – patches of weeds, rocks, other swimmers or boats.  Those things add a little uncertainty and interest, but mostly you know how to deal with those.   What do you do if the fabled lake monster suddenly appears in your path?    You’ve heard all about it for years, but maybe not really worried too much about the possibility of it appearing.    But here it is!!  What are you going to do?  This is way beyond your experience, and you only have your memory of a few science fantasy movies to call on for an approach.    Survival mode kicks in ... some will just freeze, some will try to out swim it, some will try to out think it, and at some point, some will just give up.  It’s hard to know till you are faced with it.

So, you’ve probably made the leap to the situation that the world finds itself in now.  And specifically, businesses and business owners. COVID has presented us with something entirely new, beyond our experience, and still there is great uncertainty. There is so much about the virus that we don't know, never mind being able to predict the future as we watch the world’s responses to it.  And while none of us have crystal balls, there are some things we can do to help navigate the uncertainty we face.   Time to get back to good business basics. 

Strategy is and always has been, all about dealing with uncertainty.  It is the process of visualising a future we want to create, and achieving that with available resources and within the context of a continually changing real world.   What is different now is the level of uncertainty and the speed with which it happened.   As I discussed in my blog on Insidious Uncertainty, we don't like uncertainty and we try hard to get grounded as quickly as possible, we latch onto tried and tested approaches for dealing with problems and our understanding of the world, and if we are not careful, we go round in circles.  A good company strategy provides a strong reference point, and no matter how many obstacles get in your way or how much uncertainty you suddenly face, you can always see where you are heading and make the best possible decisions based on today’s reality that keep you moving in the right direction. 

So, if you feel that you may be going round in circles (and we can see that a lot of people are), then here are a few things you should consider:

1 – Recognise that you are going round in circles.  The last 3 or 4 months have been a frantic time for many if not most.  The focus has quite rightly been on working out what’s going on and stabilising.   Operationally focusing on survival.   It is easy to get stuck here – just waiting for the next operational challenge to come along so you can deal with it.   So ....

2 – Reconnect with your grand strategy.  Time to lift you head up, look into the distance and re-orientate. What are you all about as a company (how do you want to change the world)?   What are your strategic goals (what do you want to achieve and by when)?   And what are you prepared to do or not do to get there?  You may have to readjust timing, but don't lose sight of any of this.   It’s all just as valid now as ever it was.    But ....

3 – Don’t despair if you don't have a strategy.   Most companies don't actually have any form of well-considered or communicated strategy – which is why they end up going round in circles.  If you are one of these, then don't despair, it’s not that difficult to come up with something that will work for you.    Building strategy is an evergreen process anyway, you start and then keep developing it – but you have to have a starting point.   And ....

4 – Don't neglect what connects strategic vision to operations. If you do have a strategy and you still feel like you are going round in circles, it may not be an issue with your strategic vision, or your operations per se, but more how you connect the 2.  We tend to build models in our minds of how the world works, and we know from experience that these models are good to varying degrees.  They may indicate a path to go along, or provide simple decision alternatives or a range of possibilities.   What we now have is ‘unknown-unknowns’ and a huge lack of good strategic planning and decision-making information; many of our existing mental models just don't work the way they used to. And so, this is where it is time to start looking for new or different ways to achieve your strategic goals.  And as a bonus ...

5 – Carpe Diem. As we've mentioned before, and Sun Tzu said well before us, wherever there is uncertainty or chaos, there is opportunity.   Being forced to find those new approaches to achieve your strategic goal, well, there is gold in there.    Necessity is the mother of invention.   We will end up in the future, the question is whether it is a future of our design or someone else’s. The future is ours to create; and it starts with a spark of vision, the determination to lead your team there, and then you can let them get on with making it happen operationally.

If you want some help with establishing or reconnecting with your corporate strategy, then let us know.

Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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