I collect great quotes. Quotes that can succinctly frame a problem, eloquently address an issue or melt a recalcitrant colleague or client.
A personal favourite is Michael Porter’s sublime quote “The essence of Strategy is choosing what not to do” (emphasis my own)
Yet, if your experience has been anything like mine, some worrying signs mark most “strategies” that I read. One, they lack any sign that the authors made any choice whatsoever. I’ve written about this previously in a post about Kitchen Sink strategies. Secondly, they are brimful of positive, life-affirming blue-sky objectives versus solid coherent strategic direction.
Do any of these “strategies” sound familiar?
“We want to become the leader in hyper-personalized delivery of relevant content for today’s connected 18-year old male”
“We’ll deliver enhanced stakeholder, employee and shareholder value by a committed focus on retail growth”
“We aim to increase volume share by 4% in all sectors we compete in”
The issue is that they aren’t really strategies.
They are a wonderfully positive articulation of the future. They are a list of hopes, dreams and desires – not an action plan for actually achieving those stated objectives.
This is why critical thinking – versus positive thinking – is so incredibly important when you’re crafting or evaluating a strategy.
Positive thinking makes everyone feel, well, positive. Sure, that’s important. What it doesn’t do is focus their energies or channel their actions.
Positive thinking suggests that by sheer force of will an organization can make anything happen. That with enough town hall meetings or rousing chants of Koombaya, disaster can be averted and any objective achieved.
Google press releases from Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster and Research in Motion and you’ll see dangerous signs of this type of positive thinking instead of the tougher job of creating strategies based in critical thinking. In those cases positive thinking quickly became wishful thinking.
Critical Thinking is imperative in Strategy Development
So how can you avoid the delicious trap of “positive thinking” strategies?
Consider scenarios: I’m an unabashed fan of scenario planning for the very reason they force you to confront alternate options – often unpleasant and unsavory ones -and build strategies to address them. Those unpleasant realities where all the blue-sky positivity in the world can’t help you.
Acknowledge something has to change: Simplistically strategies are a blueprint to move your organization forward. Inherently they require something to change in what you’re doing presently. And change is hard! That’s why blue-sky thinking found so often in vision and mission statements is so attractive. It doesn’t pinpoint any change and asks nothing except the channeling of your positive thinking.
Make a choice: Back to Michael’s quote. Strategy must force a choice. The inclusion of Maps in Apple’s newest release is a choice. Removing all the Google Maps features you’d enjoyed in previous releases, that’s a deliberate choice. Time will tell if it will pay-off. Blue-sky doesn’t make a choice. Worse, for line managers, it gives you no means of evaluating whether the choices you are making will help achieve the goal so eloquently set out in your mission statement.
Real strategy work is tough. I know those of you reading this post have, like myself, struggled to create decent strategies in the past. What it takes is the conviction of critical thinking over positive thinking. Save all that blue-sky positive thinking for determining how you’re going to spend your bonus.
Am I giving positive thinking a bad rap? Does it have a genuine place in crafting great strategy?
(Photo credit: http://videogum.com/13382/friday_fight_tom_cruise/friday-fight/)