How do you develop a strategy when the target keeps moving?

moving target

I was watching a basketball game between a bunch of 8-year-olds the other day. The “red” team was winning 18-0, an insurmountable lead at that age. The “blue” team was exhausted and disheartened from the pummeling.

But within a heartbeat, blue’s luck changed. A speedy player intercepted a pass and steamed down the court, for a wide open lay-up.

The crowd held its breath as the young player effortlessly flipped the ball up and into the hoop. Of the wrong basket.

The crowd gasped. Tears welled up in the stunned player’s eyes as he realized his team’s humiliation was complete. He had scored a basket for the other team.

This sad little episode seems an apt analogy for one of the costliest mistakes you can make in a business: Having brilliant execution against the wrong goal.

When I first started out in business, my company actually required us to create five-year plans.  That seemed like a difficult exercise back then and today that is simply impossible. And yet, it is easy to get locked into annual goals and work beautifully against them, never realizing they’re already out of date.

Business today is not like a basketball player trying to shoot at the right goal. It’s like a basketball player shooting at a goal that is moving.

I think this problem is especially acute for small companies and start-ups. I once had an entrepreneur tell me that the nature of his company changed every three months. It’s true. Simply adding a new employee or a new customer can radically alter the direction of the company. The nature of my work has changed dramatically in the past 12 months.

If you are still heads-down, working like crazy without taking the time to assess the world around you, you might be making a deadly business mistake. Here are five questions to reflect on:

  • How am I spending my time today compared to a year ago?  If there is a dramatic change, why? Is this a sign that the market is changing or have I lost focus on what makes me profitable?
  • What is the biggest internal threat to my business? Is it resources? Keeping up with change? A lack of focus? Turnover?
  • What is the biggest external threat to my business? New competitors? New expectations? Problems with the economy?
  • How have my competitors changed? Do I even know who my competitors are right now?
  • What are my customer’s under-served or un-met wants and needs? Do I think I know, or have I really asked them?

Spending just a little time reflecting on these questions could save you months of heartache down the road. What do you think? How are you coping with the constantly moving target of your business?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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  • geofflivingston

    The ability to move in the face of consistent change while not going to far is truly an art. Seth Godin’s most recent book really touched on this quite a bit, and it’s a topic that affects all of us. Everything is moving so damn quickly. We have to move like water, evolving as the course changes with the landscape.

  • Absolutely agree and, when unplanned opportunities arrive, is your plan flexible enough to allow you to take it and change course? Long-term vision is good but a five-year plan might actually do the opposite of its intended affect.

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  • This is also the theme in Mitch Joel’s new book. I’m not sure if it is exhilarating or depressing!

  • I can’t see how a five year plan is possible any more unless perhaps in acquisition or investments?

  • Great post, as usual, Mark. I particularly like the last bullet point, as I see that mistake made frequently in my field. We tend to see always through our own eyes, and not necessarily through the eyes of the consumer of our product(health care). We make assumptions, and we are often wrong.

    Isn’t that where social media comes in? Allowing us to be in touch with the constantly changing needs of our customers? Helping us to see that which we could not or would not see just a few years ago? Yes, even in medicine, we must meet those needs and wants, give up being paternalistic for once and for all, and give the customer something they will actually embrace.

    Thanks for a great start to the week.

  • To some extent that is true. In some cases, real time Twitter conversations can provide incredible marketing insight, for example, but I don;t think you can rely on that completely. Just another data point but lazy marketers tend to put to much credit in social because it is relatively easy and low cost.

  • Yes, a good strategy and plan is important. But, so is the ability to be nimble. You can’t be so focused on your plan that you forget to survey the competitive landscape around you and adjust accordingly. If you fail to do that, you run the risk of getting blindsided.

  • It is very interesting to watch huge companies who are not nimble create counter measures to try to overcome this. For example, many companies have given up on innovation and are simply buying the nimble companies who are innovating. Thanks for the great observation Laura!

  • As always, a great and timely article! There are many companies that only a few years ago had the right personal to execute their strategy, but with the rapid change of the market, the skills of their employees are now outdated and the business is unable to change direction. These companies are often profitable and small to mid-size in nature. They are unable to realize that their business is threatened mainly because of they are profitable and don’t think changes are needed and proceed with the status quo. Management has to be able to put people in the proper positions to necessitate the changes of the rapidly evolving customer by being sure that employees have access to training, seminars, and other resources that will allow career growth that will in turn keep the company relevant. Of course, it would be ideal that employees take the initiative, but that is not always guaranteed.

  • Craig Lindberg

    As I dig back into my ancient recollections from sitting in high school algebra class I recall if you have a problem with all variables and no fixed values it
    is impossible to arrive at a solution. That’s why I think every enterprise must
    select some fixed value set (success criteria) and only change one based upon very careful consideration. The other variables may be driven by more routine data collection about the client profile/persona, market size, competitive action and technology/innovation. I think this is why we’re seeing the growing role of Big Data in marketing and interpreting the meaning of some oceans of data fed by social and digital that when boiled down help in determining new values and variables in our equation with the goal of more accurate, reliable solutions that become part of our strategy plan.

    The cautionary here is changing course constantly in response to input, is bewildering and exhausting which drives up the toll on all resources, human and financial especially the larger the organization. So to your question Mark I think for many companies a good policy is to formally review the business or marketing strategy at least quarterly including routinely polling key staff/stakeholders for input and data for those factors that substantially challenge and would support making changes to the current set of values and variables.

    Thanks for posing this question, it really is thought provoking. Looking forward to hearing more on this.

    Cheers!

  • Wow. You know how sometimes you’re just meant to read something? This is one of those times. I plan on sitting down and answering each of these today. Thanks Mark! —–> As for my initial thoughts, it’s important to be nimble, but it’s also important to not get comfortable. I think it’s easy when things are going smoothly to simply sit back and enjoy the success for a bit. With as quickly as the landscape is moving, however, you’d best be sure that you don’t do that for long! For me, being too comfortable is probably my biggest threat.

  • Love it when a plan comes together! : )

  • Really superb advice here Craig. A good blog post in its own right! Thank you.

  • Very key idea. Do you have the right people in place. Gut wrenching evaluations at times.

  • Craig Lindberg

    Thanks very much Mark for the feedback! I will “repurpose” 🙂 as a blog just as soon as I get my site launched.

  • Interesting that it’s easier to buy a nimble company than it is to create a nimble culture! It reminds me of a post you wrote awhile back about small businesses have the advantage because they can shift so much easier. There can be a lot of truth to that!

  • Very relevant article! With how quickly the world is changing these days, your company is always have to adjust and adapt to the changing world. I agree when you talked about it affecting smaller teams and companies more and I fully agree. I work for a large corporation but at our specific location we have a very small team. So when one person quits or gets an opportunity at a different location and we are trying to replace them, it can really effect everything else.

  • I do believe that is true. I think large companies are becoming less able to compete day by day. I don’t think “scale” is the advantage it used to be.

  • Really good take on this Daniel. You taught me something today. Thanks!

  • I agree! In Karate when we’re training we’re taught to use our peripheral vision when sparring – especially when confronted with multiple adversaries. However, when we are tested for advancement, we’re required to do the forms backwards with our eyes closed. In that way, we have to trust what we already know before we can move ahead. I think that’s what it’s like doing business now. Peripheral vision + closing our eyes periodically & trust = advancement

  • Craig Lindberg

    Thanks Kristine. An apt analogy (wow, how did all the A’s get in there? 🙂

  • Great question and lots of good comments Mark. A little more to add to Craig’s comment in particular… The challenge is when you don’t have an authentic long-term vision for what you’re trying to create and a clear understanding of your values [as reflected in what behaviours are rewarded and which ones are punished] then constantly monitoring the changes to the current situation will lead to something that looks and feels suspiciously out of control; just reacting and responding to the next thing. [sadly I see this too often]

    So, back to your story: What’s key is knowing both the goal AND where you are in relationship to it [what’s happening around you that supports/or disrupts your plans]. By staying in touch with both at the same time you’re able to learn and adjust your plans/actions to most effectively move toward your goal.

  • Great insight. I personally look at our corporate strategy as a long term investment. There’s always going to be ups and downs but it’s the overall trend that remains the same. We have to fine tweak our approach to things every day, but the mission remains the same.

  • Love this post, mainly because I can’t help but snigger a little at all those managers that try to catch their company in spreadsheets and models and five-year plans. I believe it was professor Ian Angell of the London School of Economics and Political Science who called models something for ‘mediocre managers’. According to him, management by numbers is a risc, since numbers always root in the past. It’s impossible to innovate if you’re rooted in the past. This has always been true, but it’s even more true these days, when “the past” can be as close as a few months or even weeks. You need to be agile, and being agile does not mean locking your company down in a model.

    However, the larger the business, the harder it is to do that. It’s one thing to change priorities like the wind if you feel it’s shifting, but it’s another thing to have the whole crew change course with you.

    The great sea captains had crews that looked up to them to be able to react immediately to every command. The best trained crews could sail a naval warship with 500 souls as tight as a racing yacht. Nowadays, companies are more like schooners with 50 captains: they’ll go fast, but it’s very hard to get the crew to act as one, especially if you want to change course…

  • Kristine Allcroft

    You’re welcome . . . and thanks for the alliteration 🙂

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  • Fantastic addition to the discussion Deborah. Thank you!

  • I don’t know. I am beginning to wonder if there is value in anything “long term” any more. Maybe strategy is finding the right hole at the right time and bursting through for a few years?

  • Fantastic analogy. Love this. Thanks for the amazing comment Volkert! It’s a real gift.

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  • Anna Pham

    Thanks for raising a very interesting issue, I think it is important to change the strategy at the right time, not too fast but not too slow compared to changes in the market and customer demand. And actually fashion is an industry that you have to change constantly and I see there is no problem for many brands to adapt.

  • Change Management – is there an app for that 🙂 Superb post, Mark. Love the b-ball analogy of moving targets and variable goals. Aptly describes the ever-evolving world (of work) around us in which dramatic changes occur everyday.

    Rapid Knowledge Attrition… (to coin a phrase) has made “learning by doing” a way of life. In an environment, where markets, media & mobile OS are hyper-fragmented, education is transient, and skills short-lived. As a result, everything is a project. 5 year plans have been time-crunched into 5 weeks. Technology!

  • rhonda hurwitz

    Sometimes, the unmet need you are looking to satisfy isn’t painful enough to warrant action in the form of buying a product or service … a good service filling a “meh” need is still “meh”… this just happened to me, and I won’t make that mistake again!

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