Look forward but work backward

basic diagram strategyI’m filling in my by-now-famous diagram from the wrong end. Actually it’s the right end, but since all the words are on the right side, it is technically backwards. And I’ve done so for a reason.

Vision is a forward look, an articulation of what the future should be. That’s relatively easy. The challenge is getting there. I’ve started with this because I believe it is necessary to begin at the end. No journey should be planned until you’ve settled on where you will end up. Pleasure trips may have the leisure to simply see where the road may take you. Business does not.

The great business guru Winnie the Pooh said “Pay attention to where you are going because without meaning you might get nowhere.” This is where leadership becomes especially critical. Having a destination is indeed absolutely critical. Building structures that will get you there is too.

“Strategic Vision is a mental image of what the future world ought to be like. (The prophet’s view). Development of a strategic vision is preceded by forecasting the actual, matter of fact, realistic and pragmatic future to create an estimate of what the future is likely to be. In doing this, the strategist looks at history, the current situation, and trends. Strategy is the crossover mechanism for moving from the world as forecasted to the world of our vision.

Strategic vision provides direction to both the formulation and execution of strategy. It makes strategy proactive, rather than reactive, about the future.”

–Colonel Bruce B.G. Clarke, “Strategic Vision,” appendix 1, part 1 in Strategic Vision and Strategy Formulation: Capstone Exercise. Carlisle Barracks: U.S. Army War College, 1994, p. A-2.

So, we need to look forward, but work backward.

Peter Drucker’s admonition that “the best way to predict the future is to create it” is spot on. It demands the implementation of strategies that will make that wonderful vision real.

But, hold on. Don’t just engage in any tasks, even those that might be familiar. Planning and implementation of activity requires strategic thinking. Max McKeown argues that “strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means”.

Therefore I define strategy as:

“The science and art of conducting a campaign on a large scale; a plan or technique for achieving some end.”

  1. Strategy is not a task list. It is large scale, long-range planning and development.
  2. Strategy is why and what not how and when. How’s and when’s must come AFTER strategies have been developed.
  3. A strategy is a system of finding, formulating, and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully. Doctrine is used here, of course, in the non-religious sense. Doctrine is a set of beliefs and values that shape who we are, what we do, and how we will be known. Doctrine shapes the nature of our business and influences motivations and methods alike. More about that in coming posts.
  4. Strategies therefore vary from place to place and from time to time. Before borrowing another’s strategies wholesale, be careful to determine if the circumstances there match or closely match yours here. A better practice is to extract the principle and make a personalized application. The American marketplace is different from others. Even within the US therea re differences that need to be considered.
  5. Because they never lose sight of the objective (vision), effective strategies usually (but not always) originate from leaders. The principle of line of sight (read more about that here) applies. Leaders see farther and more clearly (at least they’re supposed to. If they don’t one must question whether leadership actually exists within them) and are therefore better equipped to determine strategies.
  6. A strategy is only an expedient, a means to an end, and is therefore expendable. Methods, systems, process, activities are devices employed to move the company or organization toward the vision. Don’t carve them in stone and never place them on an altar to be worshiped.
  7. A strategy is important but not too valuable to be adapted.  Vision is. Once you’ve set your eye on the prize, never vary from your commitment to be faithful to it and strive for it. How you get there can and will vary. No strategy, regardless of how well it is thought out, how carefully contingencies are planned for ever survives contact with the real world without alteration because it is subject to unforeseen events and the independent will of others.

Vision is a forward look. But your work begins by working backward. Once you know the ultimate, what has to happen before that? And then what has to happen before that? Before that? And …well, you get the idea.

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