Company strategies: the missing ingredient

Posted by Shawn Callahan - August 8, 2012
Filed in Strategy

We’re privileged at Anecdote to see many company strategies. Interestingly, the sizes and shapes of these strategies don’t necessarily correlate with the sizes and shapes of the organisations that created them. We’ve seen some of the biggest companies in the world struggle to put their fingers on what a strategy is, and we’ve seen some smaller, local firms clearly and succinctly describe how they are creating their own futures – and we’ve seen everything in-between, too!

The forms these strategies take also vary enormously. We’ve seen everything from 76-page tomes replete with bar charts and spreadsheet excerpts to a single page adorned with a simple picture. (We’ve also seen nothing at all – more organisations than you would expect operate without any documented strategy.)

Despite their variety, however, these strategies usually have a number of things in common. Most contain a mission or purpose statement. And nearly all of them describe a set of values, as well as goals or objectives. But in almost every case there’s something vital missing: an indication of how the organisation plans to achieve success. At Anecdote, we like to call this a company’s bold strategic moves.

When a company produces a strategy without bold moves, it’s as if it is saying, ‘We know where we want to go, and we know what it is going to be like when we arrive, but we haven’t the foggiest idea of how we are going to get there’. It’s like everyone is expected to just make their own way to the stated destination, doing the best they can under the circumstances. The result: a huge waste of time and effort, and the erosion of morale and confidence in the organisation’s leadership, making the next strategic effort even harder to pull off.

While on vacation recently I read the book Moneyball, which gives a great example of the power of bold moves. You might have seen the movie of the same name, which stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball club. Well, Billy had a clear goal for his club: to reach the play-offs of the World Series. And he also knew how he was going to achieve this goal: 1) focus his batters to just get on base, and 2) use baseball statistics to identify players who were good at getting on base and recruit them. These two bold moves catapulted the Oakland A’s to the top of the league in 2002.

Bold moves should be broad and simple. Before the merger with Billiton, BHP took the bold move of shedding ‘all parts of the business that weren’t natural resources’. They sold their steel business, their IT consulting division and their fleet of vehicles, among many other things. Their goal was to focus on being a leading global resources company, and by many measures they achieved it.

Bold moves should be plausible. When you are telling your employees, clients and shareholders what you are planning to do, you have to tell a story that makes sense. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a story that stretches the imagination so long as in the realm of possibility, it’s doable. When IBM took the bold move of building and leading with IT services, the history and capabilities of the company supported that strategy. It was a plausible story.

Bold moves should also be coherent. They should support the business model, each move working in concert with all the others. For instance, it makes no sense to announce, ‘We are going to move all customer interactions offshore’, and then to try and complement this with, ‘And we are going to deepen our customer intimacy’. This is neither plausible or coherent – in fact, reading that back to myself, it’s a little creepy.

Finally, bold moves should be supported by the actions of a company’s leaders, not just their words. Nothing will kill a strategy quicker than its creators acting in a way that contradicts it. This often happens when management are not on the same page as their own strategy, when they are not united in their understanding of it. They need to take the time and effort to agree on what the strategy means, and to care about it.

So ask yourself: Does your company strategy have any bold moves?

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “Company strategies: the missing ingredient”

  1. Limor Says:

    Hi Shawn, great post, thanks. I’d add – bold moves should be led, not just expected. It seems many employees are waiting for bold moves to happen but don’t do much to lead the way even in their own domain.