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Good strategy; the importance of proximate goals

Goal setting is a key component of strategy development but it is not Strategy. In many cases, the key question ‘How are we going to do that’ is not answered. Strategy is not what you hope your performance is going to be. Strategy is about how you are going to get there. This is one of the central tenets of a superb book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters, by Richard Rumelt (Profile Books, 2011). This blogpost will outline some thoughts on Good Strategy having read this fantastic book.




 

What is your Strategy?

What is your strategy?

 

I think that this image of the Eagle in the sky is highly appropriate for a discussion on strategy. If one was to impose the terminology of business strategy within this context, one could say that:

–  Purpose (preferable to the word Mission) of the Eagle is to secure food. It is not necessarily to be the best eagle in the world or even in its local area. This is on basis that ‘the customer’ is her family who require food.

–  The key resources are Sight, Power and Speed and of course location or territory. I was watching a BBC documentary recently which explained how the design of the wing is ideal for riding thermals. Using awesome skills, the eagle is a brilliant example of efficient use of energy.

 

So the strategy is clear. This is without spending time on elaborate vision statements.  I also don’t think it matters whether this strategy is conscious, evolving or driven by natural instinct but one can definitely associate this image with the art of learning, skill acquisition and risk management.

 

 

 

Amazon’s Strategy

 

The question is whether a business strategy can be illustrated or stated as simply as the Eagle. Yes according to this fascinating post about Amazon.

The image below comes straight from Amazon – originally it was a napkin sketch by Jeff Bezos. Note that there’s no arrow pointing outwards labelled ‘take profits.’ This is a closed loop.

napkin sketch by Jeff Bezos, Amazon

 

As I was writing this article, I came across a superb article about Intuit and HubSpot. The author makes the point that there are many really large successful software companies that target large enterprise. But there is only one really large business that targets and serves small business. The article explains why and how to overcome the inherent obstacles in such an approach – focuses on the why behind the how!

What is Good Strategy?

 

Good Strategy Bad Strategy Book coverIt is somewhat difficult to pick a good business book to read. This is especially so in the area of strategy. I decided to read this particular one having watched this video on YouTube (it is 90 minutes but well worth watching).

 

The book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters, by Richard Rumelt (Profile Books, 2011) is superb. The author is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategy and management. Shortlisted for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Book of the Year 2011 you can read a worthy review on Summary.com and this is a superb opinion piece published by the Washington Times.

Author Richard P. Rumelt emphasizes, goals are not strategy. Goals are wishes. Strategies are how one goes about achieving goals.

 

Some (six) of my highlights from the books include:

 

#.1 A good strategy does more than urge us towards a goal or vision.

The core of strategy is discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors. The greater the challenge, the more a good strategy focuses and coordinates efforts to achieve a powerful problem solving effect.

 

#.2 A good strategy has an essential logical structure that Rumelt calls a Kernel.

The kernel of a good strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy and coherent action.

–          A diagnosis defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.

–          The guiding policy specifies the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis.

–          Coherent actions are feasible co-ordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.

 

Good guiding policies follow from visions of desirable end states. They define a method of grappling with the situation and ruling out a vast array of possible actions. For example, Wells Fargo’s corporate vision is this: “We want to satisfy all our customers’ financial needs, help them to succeed financially, be the premier provider of financial services in every one of our markets, and be known as one of America’s great companies”. The ‘vision’ communicates an ambition, but alone it is not a strategy because there is no information about how this ambition will be achieved. Wells Fargo Chairman emeritus and former CEO Richard Kovacevich knew this and emphasised a guiding policy based on cross-selling. He believed that the more different financial products Wells Fargo could sell to a customer, the more the company would know about that customer and about its whole network of customers. That information would, in turn, help it create and sell more financial products. This guiding policy, calls out a way of competing – a way of trying to use the company’s large scale to advantage.

 

#.3 Strategy is the application of strength against the most promising opportunity.

A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength, it creates strength through the coherence of its design. The opposite however is often the reality – organisations pursue multiple objectives that are unconnected with one another, or worse, that conflict with one another.

 

#.4 Problem diagnosis is the first step in strategy development.

The most powerful strategies arise from game changing insights – of customers, markets, competitors, regulators and industries. A guiding policy creates advantages by anticipating the actions and reactions of others, by exploiting the leverage inherent in concentrating effort on a pivotal or decisive aspect of the situation, and by creating policies and actions that are coherent, each building on the other rather than cancelling one another out.

 

#.5 Good proximate objectives – one that is close enough at hand to be feasible – are Powerful.

A proximate objective names a target that the organisation can reasonably be expected to hit even overwhelm. In chapter seven, Rumelt explains that President Kennedy’s call for the United States to place a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s is often held out as a bold push into the unknown. Seemingly audacious, however, landing on the moon was a carefully chosen proximate strategic objective. It was a matter of marshaling resources and political will. It was a model in clarity. Good proximate objectives do wonders for organizational energy and focus.

 

#.6 Dynamic situations  require ‘even more’ proximate strategic objectives

Many writers on strategy seem to suggest that the more dynamic the situation, the farther ahead a leader must look. But Rumelt holds that the more dynamic the situation, the poorer your foresight will be. Therefore, the more uncertain and dynamic the situation, the more proximate a strategic objective must be. The logic must be to take a strong position and create options. The question to ask is: what one single feasible objective, when accomplished, would make the biggest difference?

 

What is proximate  for one nation, one organisation, or even one person may be far out of reach to another. The obvious reason is difference in skills and accumulated resources. Which brings us back to the first point in this list, namely that coordinating and focusing action is hugely critical in strategy. The skill of co-ordination should not be under estimated. This requires good people, processes and systems.

To conclude

I am reminded that the concept of setting proximate goals is not new and is indeed a long understood (but maybe forgotten or often ignored) principle. It is as explained on Wikipedia the kernel of the fable ‘Belling the Cat’ .

The fable concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.

 

 

As I writing this post, Seth Godin’s daily email arrived. The topic ‘What are you competing on?’ … the real power is to ask the right question.

 

As always, I hope you enjoyed this admittedly long post. All my work with clients involves Strategy in its many guises. If you have a strategy question facing your business, feel free to get in touch. And comments are always welcome, published and responded to.

regards

donncha (@donnchadhh)

 

 

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