Sometime early in the pandemic I decided I wanted to have a flower garden. I began planting things. Some of them grew well, some not. Eventually, it became a colorful garden. But soon, my pretty blooms got straggly, and stopped flowering. I was sad but resigned to my failure.
My neighbor is a horticultural savant. When I walk by her house the yard waste bin is always full. How can there be so many cuttings from such a lush garden?
When I ask her for help with some withering plant or other her answer is generally the same: “Prune!” Apparently, a full yard waste bin is a sign of gardening expertise.
Pruning feels painful to me. As my stems grow taller and begin to bloom I get more and more attached to them. But my gardening oracle says to prune!
An Embarrassment of Riches
Strategic planning faces the same dilemma. Without ruthless pruning it’s hard to generate a focused and durable enterprise. This is especially true for startups that are honing their business model, and making choices between verticals, projects, features and pricing.
Pruning strategic initiatives feels like murdering opportunity. So many new possibilities—each holding the promise of a windfall for the business. Our intuition tells us to include them all as projects that may work!
With endless time, money, or people, you might have the capacity to try everything. But even if you could do it, you shouldn’t. More on that in a moment.
Choose One, Choose Not the Other
Budgetary constraints are one important reason you must make choices. But each strategic choice eliminates another. And even though we may not be able to do anything with that other idea, we don’t want to let it go.
Practiced writers often hear the phrase “kill your darlings”. Like gardeners, writers must often delete their favorite turns of phrase to improve the whole work.
In a strategic planning meeting every participant has projects and opportunities they adore. When the moment comes to choose between directions and focus, they hold onto their individual ideas, campaigning to keep them.
Whether in business or life, our inclination is to “keep our options open”. Harvard professor Mihir Desai writes in The Trouble With Optionality, “optionality is a means to an end, not the end itself”.
Keeping options open when you’re crafting a strategic plan is the same as keeping your options open in choosing a mate. Without a commitment you will never settle down. There are always more possibilities.
Keeping options open feels freeing, but it also keeps you from being all in. You won’t bring your total focus and energy to executing a single goal. The variety pulls you in multiple directions at once. Ultimately you don’t accomplish much.
For an organization with limited resources, the problem is compounded.
An Anonymous Example
One of my corporate clients is trying to navigate their way through a similar situation.
To fulfill their goals they have established varied partnerships. Those partnerships allow for selling into several verticals. Of course, each new market needs different marketing and messaging, different sales approaches, different collateral, pricing, and compensation models.
Everyone on the leadership team is creative and highly intelligent. And each potential strategic theme is equally brilliant. It’s hard to kill off even one. The choice between alternatives is overwhelming.
No one has the fortitude to ruthlessly cull. There are so many products and services and each has its own value proposition and demands its own implementation.
How does that affect the business? Not that well.
Consider the How
When you start considering what execution requires, the reality becomes overwhelming. There are so many steps. Capacity sags under the weight of alternatives. You must educate employees about changes and change is always difficult.
Plus, new initiatives may mean new materials, expertise, training, tracking, and measuring progress and obstacles. There aren’t play books or defined processes. Who trains everyone in their altered roles?
But that’s how you execute strategy. Without a manageable number of initiatives, and crystal-clear orientation, the result can be chaotic. Employees are confused. They’re not sure what they’re selling, how it’s priced, or what different markets need and want.
The deluge of initiatives has bred uncertainty and disarray.
Building a strategy-focused organization requires exactly that: focus. Focus means concentrating completely and solely on one thing. ONLY ONE. When a strategy includes too many themes and initiatives, the laser-like focus is diffuse, and with it the team’s effectiveness.
What can leadership teams do to solve this problem? There are some basic principles to help. It may be useful to use all of them or just a few of them.
The key thing is a change of mindset. Instead of reveling in brilliant options, embrace clarity and streamlining. Here are some ideas.
> Use a consultant or facilitator. An expert in strategy can facilitate the painful culling of brilliant ideas. There are a variety of ways that they might do that. But the mere inclusion of that outside voice can be magical.
> Disclose the full available budget before settling on anything.
> Agree on a fixed number of themes and initiatives. Maybe one for the organization and (say) two per unit. Make sure everything explicitly points toward the value proposition.
> Develop a flowchart of what must be in place for each initiative. What skills, head count, behaviors, processes, and support infrastructure will you need to succeed? Assessing that while still in the planning phase can help to reduce options.
> Ask if the plan exceeds the budget? How will you make up the difference?
> Design each initiative’s metrics while still in the planning phase. That can also illuminate the complexity.
These are challenging steps. They force a team to consider constraints. There are more than material constraints like money and head count. Consider culture and how agile the team is.
Bring it all to the table. With that backdrop the pruning may feel more important and approachable.
It’s simple, but not easy.