How Fear and Complacency Stand in the Way of Your Strategy

How Fear and Complacency Stand in the Way of Your Strategy

A friend recently told me how much he enjoyed riding the ancient tractor they use in his family’s forest: “There are so many moving parts, all running flat out all the time, and you have to be really careful shifting it up a gear so things line up perfectly, but you’re off to the races once it’s in gear!”. That’s what your business might feel like as well: while still producing the result you want, it might feel a bit rusty, slightly dated in how it functions, not quite what you need anymore.

You can’t just force it into a higher gear, as in revamping the strategy to make your business future-proof for the next few years. Before you can shift into that higher gear, you need to understand how aligned the people in your business are, even if your business is just you or a small team. You want to align them around the need for a strategy process as such: there might be some doubts as to whether a new strategy is really needed, or whether the business should just continue to run as it is.

Low levels of urgency are all too common

Even if you find there is a consensus about the need for a strategy, some might feel this is not the right time to start a strategy process. You want to understand whether the need for a new strategy is seen as both important and urgent among the team. You need their buy-in and commitment for the process ahead. Whether you will achieve commitment, strongly connects to the perceived importance and urgency of designing and implementing a new strategy.

Thankfully, it has been a long time since I have met entrepreneurs or corporate leaders who denied the need for a clear-cut business strategy. The importance of having one in place seems to be widely accepted and rarely challenged.

When it comes to the level of urgency, however, you might find a more diverse picture and differing opinions amongst the team. If you start digging deeper to understand where a low level of urgency might originate from, you are likely to find one of two answers: ‘the business is running so well and we are so incredibly busy right now, this is not a good time for a new strategy’. You may hear something along the lines of ‘the business is running really badly, we have to take care of our customers and revenue, or there won’t be much of a company left to implement a new strategy for’.

I have heard both reasons a few times. Depending on someone’s individual priorities, level of strategic acumen, and experience these answers make complete sense, at least for this individual – not so much from a business perspective though.

It’s too late to think about strategy once the herring is gone

Let’s take a closer look at these answers; number one: ‘the business is running so well, and we are so incredibly busy right now, this is not a good time for a new strategy’. At the heart of this statement probably lies excitement about how great the business seems to run for the company.

It might look like a great idea to fully focus on reeling in the herring as long as it is close to the coast. Take what you can get now, it might be gone tomorrow. Nothing wrong about enjoying success, right? Mid and longer term though, the lurking danger of this complacent attitude is that you can quickly miss the right moment to rethink your business for continued future success. What do you do once the herring is gone?

When those moments occur you likely won’t have enough time to start a strategy process. The consequences of neglecting the need for strategy and change for too long are often devastating, like restructuring a company and even insolvency. Famous examples include the Canadian technology firm Research in Motion / Blackberry, the once dominant American photography company Kodak, and the ex-mobile phone giant Nokia. These companies enjoyed decades of success and at one point in time had become too complacent to reinvent themselves through new strategies. As a result, the companies and their brands lost market share and value until they became insignificant or disappeared completely.

Restructuring isn’t strategy

Let’s look at answer number two: ‘the business is running really badly, we have to take care of our customers and revenue, or there won’t be much of a company left to implement a new strategy for’. The driving factor behind this statement is fear. Fear of losing customers, sales, income, job security. Leaders and entrepreneurs should recognize these fears and take them seriously; address and manage them. Instead of allowing negative self-fulfilling prophecies and excuses for avoiding a strategy process, facilitate a discussion based on facts and create transparency.

If the organization was in fact close to bankruptcy, as this answer suggests, the level of urgency within the business will be as high as it can get. But if the platform is on fire, restructuring the company should be the order of the day. Restructuring is not strategy. Strategy design might start once the business is back in calmer waters. If the result of a fact-based discussion is, however, that it is far from being a case for restructuring, the answer won’t stand the test. Remove angst from the team before you embark on your strategy journey.

Start with aligning on importance and urgency

Check in with your team to understand the level of importance and sense of urgency regarding a strategy process. Let’s assume – on a scale from 1 to 10 (where 10 means very high), the values for either or both importance and urgency are below 8. That’s not what you want. Why? Because a strategy process is quite a ride which you want to run together with your team. It is not a sprint. It requires lasting energy, time, money, and sometimes tough decisions.

If your people see little importance or urgency, starting the process could mean you embark on a suicide mission. Parts of the team will likely chicken out once the process becomes difficult or time consuming. They will deprioritize strategy work, lack commitment and engagement, and will not develop the amount of accountability needed in the process to create a purposeful and winning strategy.

Facilitating this discussion with your team can be difficult and you might want to bring in an external strategy facilitator. They bring experience, expert knowledge, and fresh perspectives from outside the organization. They are unbiased in their approach and create a neutral atmosphere, to help reach the best possible outcomes for your team. In this case, it means, aligning the moving parts of the old tractor, and then get into a higher gear – off to the races!

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By Alex Brueckmann

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