Desperately Seeking Strategy

Thirty-five years ago as a new technical sales engineer in a Fortune 100 company, I picked up an illustrated article called “The 10 Biggest Mistakes Salesmen Make.” I found it to be humorous, insightful and in practice, very true. Today in a consultative role for early stage tech businesses, I find myself thinking that a modern-day version of that anecdotal piece could be called “The Biggest Mistakes Early Stage Companies Make.”

Logically, you might conclude that developing a strategic direction for your business is fundamental, if not a blinding flash of the obvious. Well, it should be! Operations, marketing and sales should take guidance and cues from strategy. But in my experience, that’s not the case. Why then, are the leadership teams of many companies unable to develop—and then clearly articulate—a strategic framework for their organization? And just what is a “strategic framework?”

A Strategic Framework Informs and Supports Your Business Choices

Simply put, strategy is about making choices toward intended outcomes. Strategy provides the common language and the shared understanding required to lay out the phased, critical-path actions necessary to achieve those choices. While some companies attempt to do this, many fail to use a disciplined process to arrive at a range of possible paths forward for their business. Often, these so-called strategy sessions (if conducted at all) are poorly facilitated brainstorming meetings—and in my experience, often a colossal waste of management’s time.

Where such sessions often fail is that they don’t take into consideration the wider and deeper insights, implications, intended and unintended consequences of how their choices affect their business as a whole. What is needed is a more logical, sequential and structured approach—a disciplined process that explores the full range of choices and begins to form the framework that, in many cases, will naturally lead to winning choices for a business.

The Strategic Framework Is Your Company’s “Rebar”

What is a “strategic framework?” Here’s a construction analogy: Your business’ strategic frameworks is the rebar, or the “reinforcing bars” that form the foundation upon which your marketing, operations and sales initiatives will be built and strongly bound together. Just like the framework necessary to construct a building and support all the materials that are put on top of it, your strategic framework supports and balances the marketplace stresses and the typical “weight-bearing creative tensions” that exist between internal stakeholder groups. This rebar helps allocate, prioritize and align resources across your entire organization. It informs messaging and positioning. It’s the structure upon which everything about your business must be built and aligned.

When developed early—well before tactics begin—and when built using a proven approach, this framework helps businesses ensure their plans survive the crucial intersection where strategy meets marketing, operations and sales development plans. In other words, it better ensures your plans can be “operationalized” at the at the point of execution where your strategies have to be implemented.

A sound strategic framework will also help your organization assess any obstacles to execution, and points of tension that may not be healthy and certainly not helpful to achieving your business goals and objectives. It is also vitally important in developing your organization’s communications platform, which is the way in which you share your value proposition so it resonates with all your audiences, from prospects, to clients and partners, even employees.

Tactics Before Strategy Will Fail

Regrettably, far too many companies skip this important foundational step and jump to the perceived expediency of jumping into tactics in an effort to chase immediate revenue generation. But when companies make this mistake, they ironically run the risk of jeopardizing the very profitability they are chasing. Has your business ever done this and wonder why certain programs, campaigns and initiatives just aren’t working? Here’s a pressure test to determine whether or not your organization has a strategy in place:

Can you answer these important questions?

 Do you have strategy and strategic framework that aligns intent and resources across functions and stakeholder groups?

 Does your strategy help guide your leadership team to make actionable choices, and is a by- product of reflecting on insights and implications?

 Does your company sometimes struggle to execute in the last 3 feet — that crucial intersection of strategy and actionable implementation?

If your organization has trouble answering any of these questions, it is a good indicator that you may need to slow down in order to speed up. This may seem counterintuitive, but a house built without a strong framework—without the rebar—is going to collapse. The same can be said of a business trying to implement disjointed tactics without the essential framework in place to give it structure, substance and direction. Nothing will stick.

So the final question is this: what is your business built on today?