If You’re Comfortable With Your Strategy, It Probably Sucks

by Matthew E May

If You're Comfortable With Your Strategy, It Probably Sucks

Does this sound familiar?

Your company has spent months coming up with a detailed action plan for the coming years, complete with financial projections illustrating exactly how you will grow share of market and thus revenue, along with a budget. All of that serious documentation gives you great comfort. In fact, everyone feels really good about it, it’s so solid. The senior leaders are all nodding yes. You can feel the weight of the plan when you hold it. So it must be good. All you need to do now is follow the plan–execute, execute, execute–and wait for the revenue to rain down from the heavens. Life will be grand!

If that sounds familiar, you should be worried. Really worried. Because all that best-laid plan has done is produce a false perception of certainty, that you have control over something inherently uncontrollable and uncertain: the future.

Therein lies the difference between strategy and planning. And they are indeed different animals. What a good strategy actually does is produce discomfort, apprehension, and perhaps a bit of fear. These are the very signals that you are placing bets and making tough choices that may lead you straight into unknown territory.

Here’s the thing: you CANNOT produce a perfect strategy, you CANNOT guarantee success, and you CANNOT eliminate risk, no matter how lock-tight, detailed and logical your action plan is. Mike Tyson said it perfectly: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

You CANNOT take the same planning approach to revenue growth the way you do for controlling costs, for the simple reason that the company is not in control of revenue the way it is for costs…the customer is! How many times has your plan failed to produce the expected revenue, forcing you to cut costs, freeze investments, and “hunker down”? (Yes, yes, I know, subscriptions help short-term forecasting. But long-term? It’s the customer who is in control.)

Finally, you CANNOT use the VUCA excuse. You know the one: “If the future is so volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, why even attempt strategy? Let’s wait for things to settle down and clear up. Meantime, we will just adopt a rapid response capability.” Seriously, I have heard that very line of “reasoning.” The illogic is dazzling. Why, and even more importantly, precisely when, will the future be any less VUCA, and how exactly would you know, in measurable terms?

What you CAN do is make intelligent choices and bets about the future — acquiring and retaining customers — that you can test out in order to validate the assumptions and preconditions under which you are likely to improve your odds of winning.

If that takes you outside your comfort zone, then you’re exactly where you need to be. Lean into that discomfort. Embrace it. Use it as the source of mental energy needed to make difficult strategic choices, choices that will likely lead you to the doorstep of the very innovation you need to claim the right to win.

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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author, most recently, of Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.

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