Sometimes not having a strategy is the best strategy

The importance of strategy is woven into the fabric of every consultation and class I teach.  I shout it from the mountaintops.  And yet, sometimes I break my own rules … and with good reason.  In a fast-changing competitive marketplace, sometimes not locking into a strategy is the best strategy.

I have an entrepreneur friend who said that his start-up company has a different direction every three months. On the surface, that may seem extreme, but when you are a small company, even something like gaining a new customer, hiring a new employee with special skills, or a sudden move by a competitor can dramatically create a course correction.

One of the most costly mistakes you can make in business is brilliantly executing an obsolete strategy.

In my particular field, the dynamics are changing tumultously. Right now, building a competency in social media marketing is barely-controlled chaos.

2011 was really a year of “wait and see” for me.  And I’m glad I took this approach.  It was uncomfortable in some ways but I needed to just let things unfold to see what monetization opportunities would emerge. Here’s what happened:

Although I have been teaching at the college level for several years, the demand for my services shot through the roof in 2011.  I was flexible enough to embrace opportunities that didn’t exist at the beginning of the year.

My consulting business shifted dramatically from multi-million dollar companies to multi-billion dollar companies.  I think this is where I am more comfortable, but it means I would have to risk more by taking on fewer, larger clients.  And can I find the right resources to help me scale in this way? Some big strategic decisions will have to made for 2012.

The speaking schedule also shifted quite a bit in 2011.  I evolved and matured as a public speaker and learned that I am very good at this.  Do I want to grow the speaking side of the business?  The trade-off with travel — is it what I want? I’ll have to bring focus to this area in the next year.

The Tao of Twitter, was released in February 2011 and was a surprise hit (at least to me!).  My second book will be released by McGraw-Hill in March and the publisher is expecting big things. This is going to throw me into a new public spotlight and undoubtedly open up more writing opportunities.  Should writing books be an emphasis going forward?

And then there is {grow}.  Blogging is the favorite part of my job but I have done a poor job monetizing the property, at least directly.  I have a new video series coming out in January and a few other ideas but I have definitely sub-optimized these opportunities.

This is a round-about way of saying that it was a very good strategy to NOT have a strategy in 2011.  None of these opportunities would have been fully available if I had decided early in the year to wed myself to one defined path.

Now, I need to be clear that although my strategy was in flux, being fully aware of my core competencies and points of differentiation were not. That’s an important distinction. In a dynamic marketplace, remaining open to strategic shifts is OK but it only works if you are clear about how you uniquely create value.

So I’m going to spend a little quiet time over the next few weeks assessing my opportunities, combining them with my passions, and defining the best monetization path and focus for the next six months. Even now, I don’t think I want to lock in completely. Is there even such a thing as a long-term strategy any more?

That’s the way things are playing out for me.  What is the role of strategy in your company? How has that changed with the increasing speed of business? How do balance the need to stay numble with the benefit of a strategic plan?

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  • I can recognize myself in what you are writing. I also tell other companies about the importance of having a strategy and then I don’t really follow the advice myself. I don’t even follow my advice to get more specialized, because I am a renaissance personality that is curious about almost anything (except sports and something more). Since I live and work on Gotland – Sweden’s biggest island in the middle of the Baltic Sea – I think part of my situation is that I like to get involved in different jobs and tasks in order to develop business on this island. But that’s not the whole truth, because there are several specialized companies here.

    Even so, I suspect that the importance of a strategy gets bigger the bigger your company gets. When you have a lot of employees the road needs to be a bit more predictable than when you are a small company with only two persons, like my company. But even so, I wonder about the word strategy and it’s meaning. I believe a strategy should reflect the inner goals and when a strategy is well grounded in a company, then it doesn’t need to change a lot.

    Even if you believe that you change your strategy, I suggest that you in fact are keeping your over all strategy anyway. Like “I will use my skills and knowledge in _this and that_ to adapt to a changing environment and new possibilities…” I think the difficult part in writing plans and strategies is to dig deep enough to find the real truths.

  • I actually was in Sweden this summer and sailed by your island. Did you see me wave hello? : ) 

    When I work with customers, I ask them if they can complete this sentence: “Only we …”  If they can do the hard work to thin that through, the strategy will reveal itself most of the time.  To complete that sentence, you need to know why you are different, why you customer love you, and who your customers are. Only then can you begin to put together a strategy based on matching your strengths to under-served customer needs. At least that is what has worked for me and my customers.

    Part of my issues is that I am serving diverse customers and I dont want to give any of them up. It’s too much fun! : ) 

    Thanks for your very honest and insightful comment Asa!.

  • Okay Mark, when you have that good a year you’re supposed to act like you had a strategy all along. Just sayin’… 🙂

    Kidding aside, seems to me from the outside that your (undefined) strategy in 2011 was to produce great content consistently and grow the {grow} community. Not sure about the details of your consulting side, but it seems like so many of the other items stemmed from that.

    And to your point, maybe that is the new strategy approach for these times and certainly any tech industry — a broad-based target (like “build a community”) that enables you to pivot and react to the fast changes and shifts that come.

    This was a timely post for me, as I was telling Mrs. D a few weeks ago that my site goal for 2012 was simply to build an incredible base of useful content, little else, and then to build off it in 2013. This is a nice reminder not to complicate that goal with ornate strategies. Keep it simple and stay nimble.

    Congrats on all the success listed above, and good luck choosing among your many options!! In this economy, having options at all is something to be very thankful for.

  • You know what a big hurdle to re-creating my strategy is? Self image.

    I identify myself as a business consultant. And yet the facts would disagree. In September, for the first time, I actually received more revenue from teaching. So do I identify myself as a teacher?  This month, I have spent most of my time preparing and reviewing content that will be sold — a new book, new video series and a second edition of Tao. Am I an author? And of course, I do have a growing consulting business too.

    I need to revise my “elevator speech.”  I’m trying to get my head around what exactly I’m becoming.  But it’s all good. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Adam.

  • I understand that you may think that your individual achievements have happened in spite of a lack of strategy, I think the exact opposite is what has happened.

    You are great at setting goals (else, how would you have finished one book, let alone two?) and have a well-defined vision of what is important to you. These attributes have allowed you make an overall strategy for your career and life path that has served you well  in deciding which new opportunities to take on and which to pass up as they present themselves. That is the essence of a good strategy, is it not?

    I like to look at strategies in much the same way as I used to look at non-profit mission statements (when I was in that world); they define the borders of the map, not the route to the destination. A good strategy allows you to be flexible enough to adapt to good opportunities when they present themselves. And, all of those good things are simply tactics to help you enable your strategy and meet your overarching goal/mission.

    The problem I have with most concepts of “strategies” is that everyone acts as if they are inscribed on tablets. I prefer to think of them as a living document. The goal remains the same, but I should feel free enough to drop less effective tactics in favor of new opportunities when the need arises. Too many folks stick with non-producing tactics because it is the only option their strategy allows, even when it doesn’t get them any closer to their goals.

    I’m so glad to have been able to see you achieve such great success this year, my friend. Keep your eyes on your goals in 2012 and new, exciting and amazingly productive tactics will continue to make themselves available to you.

  • Best line: “One of the most costly mistakes you can make in business is brilliantly executing an obsolete strategy.” It reminds me of the quote (which I’ll paraphrase or butcher, depending upon your perspective)…nothing is more futile than doing something efficiently that shouldn’t be done at all…something like that.

    A strategy and a plan? Redundant the moment it’s written. But it’s important to have that strategy and plan BUT be chameleon-like, and adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. I tell my clients that their plan is a bit like a kaleidoscope. As you view through the lens, the “plan” or picture is there, but the moment you twist the cylinder, it changes. Be aware of twists to the cylinder, and adapt as required:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Maybe you’re right.  Perhaps the de facto strategy is “do more of what is fun.” That seems to have been the path! :  ) 

    Hoping we will find more ways to work together in 2012!  Thanks for the insightful comment Shane! 

  • I have been really doing a lot of thinking about how the speed of business, and the Internet in particular, has changed strategy and leadership. I like that cylinder image. The sales funnel has become a corkscrew! : ) 

    Delighted to see you back in the comment section by the way, Kaarina! 

  • Congratulations on a great year, Mark. 
    Your response to Adam’s comment jumped out at me – the idea of having to hone in on a single, elevator-speech-appropriate self-image: consultant, teacher, or author. From where I’m sitting, those are all just mediums through which you deliver your message. I’m thinking it’s not so much the format or venue that’s important as it is your philosophy – your way of doing things. THAT’s your “through-line” – the thread that runs through your bigger story. 

    You may have diversity in your activities and even audiences, but they all fit together and feed into each other in this living, evolving ecosystem that is Mark W. Schaefer. I agree that there should be a tactical strategy (or at least an outline of one) for the day-to-day stuff and to help you assess and prioritize the many opportunities before you, but I’d construct it in the context of WHO you are … not “what” you are. Life is bigger than any strategy. 

  • A good post indeed Mark.
    Over the past couple of years I have been applying learning to these very issues you face. I intend to unfold them this year: and April 27th is a day that has become prominent in doing that.
    I see what has developed for you, and which I intend to develope for me as being this.

    The Three Faces System.

    Face to Face: consulting
    Here I will actually apply the knowledge on a one to one teaching. 
    Once the process is developed you can organize around this for the other faces.

    Face to More: Teaching or Training
    Here I will apply the knowledge in a group setting.
    Once the training is produced you can then package them and resell them as you will.

    Face to Many: Products.
    Here I will apply the knowledge through books, video, MP3’s, PDF’s and other mediums.
    Once the products are created you are able to resell them as and when.

    It looks like the year brought all of those to your door. It isn’t either or in your case but  actually all of them at once.  The secret is that you control how you use the Three Faces.

    This is my whole strategy going forward, and it is nice to follow someone like yourself who is seeing it unfold before him. 

    You are now in the same position as anyone who has succeeded. You are in demand, but cannot meet all the demand under one condition, so the Three Faces does it for you. Priced accordingly.

    Sincerely Billy

  • First of all, congrats, Mark. You have achieved what many of us are striving for – with or without a strategy! I, too, spent 2011 with an “in my head” strategy instead of the usual written plan I espouse. Maybe if I wait for the organic shift that you experienced, I should hold off on that written plan on my “to do” list? 🙂

  • Well said my friend.  I am also having to come to terms with “Mark W. Schaefer” as a the brand. Very uncomfortable but increasingly, that is what people want. I hate promoting myself. That is the worst part of this job. The best part is getting know amazing people like you! Thanks Jamie!

  • Ha!  Apply, rinse, repeat.

  • Increasingly a written plan is useless for me. It was very helpful when I started my business because it forced me to think through the hard questions. But now, an actual tactical plan beyond some major themes is obsolete in a month or less. Right after I published this blog post, I was hired to do a new series of workshops with Cisco. My strategy has just been adjusted for me once more! 

    Always a delight to hear from you Elaine. Thanks! 

  • What I really liked about this Mark as I read it is your ability to play the ‘observer’ and give honest assessment of you, your brand, and the direction of your business. More specifically, I like how you recognize your strengths. I don’t think we do that enough in society. It’s almost as if we’re now taught to be so ‘humble’ that we never think to ourselves, “Dang, I just might be awesome at this and I should run with it.”

    I’m not saying we should be boastful, but we should certainly be real. And that’s what this assessment was. Loved it man,


  • I’m always testing. Sometimes, things don’t pan out the way I might have expected, but you know, that’s ok. I learned something. I learned what works and what doesn’t work. So I keep testing and focus on the things that do work… 

    It’s nice to be flexible and be able to adjust where/when it’s called for. 

  • I’d also advocate looking back on the year you’ve had and describing it in terms of what you’ve achieved as the perfect strategy Mark! Much easier to look back at where you’ve been than where you are going!
    And I also suggest you have followed the perfect strategy for you, as some of these good folks have already said, and interestingly from my point of view, and the reason I have been drawn to your work, you’ve practiced what you preach too. 
    The third strand of ‘Authentic Helpfulness’ was the part of Tao that originally really caught my eye, and I’d like to suggest that this has more or less been your plan over the last year?
    Well actually, and this is where I think it gets really interesting – Not so much authentic helpfulness, and just being authentic. Which for you means being amongst other things, helpful!
    At heart, you read and sound and talk like someone that is at great pains to be honest and true to themselves, and those around them, and this approach has always stood me in good stead in business too.
    And considering how hard it can be to do this, its a strategic aim in itself don’t you think?

  • Brian Houp

    Mark – You are doing a great job and I’m thrilled that you are continuing to juggle it all. I’m glad I was introduced to your messages when you spoke at the Louisville Ad Fed. Following that I picked up your book and started following your blog & Twitter. I’m certain that your projects help feed the content you share with everyone. I’ve passed along many of your blog messages and concepts from your book. Your ‘non-strategy’ has served many people well. Thanks for all your efforts!

  • This is always a struggle for me. I’m probably the most self-effacing person you will meet and I’m always concerned about people reading things into a post like this. But I’ve decided to just be me and go for it. When things are good, I’ll say so. When things are bad, I’ll say so.  So far I think the blog community has treated me fairly, but it’s not easy so I appreciate the encouragement, Marcus.

  • Like you I have a very diverse business: in the last week I’ve given two lectures, written five articles for publication, managed two ongoing website projects, done a blog review for another client and entered into negotiations with a prospective client for the new year. I also outsourced one project, and turned down two other projects. 

    Having a small business I try to be open to new possibilities.  This year I’ve taken on more university teaching than in the past six years. After I got out of full-time university teaching back in 2004 and started working for myself I swore that was it for university work. But this year, I’ve accepted the opportunity to work with students because I feel I can share some of my experiences and skills and give them a kick-start in their careers. I didn’t expect to do that but actually enjoyed it a lot.

    I’ve also done more podcasting for clients, web-site project management, written less journalistic articles, but done more strategic planning for clients. Some of it was great fun, some of it drove me spare. In other words, I’m learning that sometimes I have to work to keep things ticking over, and sometimes I take on a project that pays a little less because I love what’s involved. 

    I have a plan, a strategic road map but I also listen to my heart as well. I make sure that if I can afford it, I can take on a project that isn’t as lucrative if I feel I’ll benefit from it too. This often leads to good things. 

    Strategy and planning gets you so far, but you also have to enjoy what you do and be open to where things can go. If you’d told me 2 years ago that I’d help a client get a book deal by producing a podcast for them I would have laughed in your face. But last month that became a reality for one of my clients. And, boy, did it feel good.

  • I have a very wise mother and she has always said, “Be flexible or break.” I think that couldn’t be more true, especially given the speed of business these days.

    I think planning is very important, but we also have to be nimble enough to adapt and change our plans when new opportunities come our way.

    When interviewing for jobs, I always hated the question, “where do you see yourself in five years?”. Sure, we can have a vision and a general idea of where we want to go, but I think life has a funny way of going in a completely different direction that we ever dreamed…..and often for the better! I think we have to be willing to accept that, position ourselves for success and then hang on for the ride!

    Congrats to you on a stellar year, Mark. I know there are many wonderful things in store for you. 🙂

  • Love this Ricardo. Very wise. Thank you!

  • Between now and when I wrote Tao more than a year ago, I am more convinced than ever that this works. Several people have told me it has changed their lives. I truly believe that if you trust that system in the book and practice it consistently, business benefits WILL accrue. I have seen it happen hundreds of times now. And I agree that that authentic helpfulness part is the most difficult to achieve because it has to come naturally.  Thanks Tony!

  • That is so very kind of you to say Brian. I hope Louisville will have me back to speak again soon. A marvelous city with wonderful people. 

  • That is so cool Jon. I feel we are kindred spirits in so many ways. I learn from you constantly. Thanks for the gift of this comment!

  • I had to laugh out loud about that “five years” interview question. Oh gosh I hated that question! But it was always pretty easy to figure out what they wanted to hear. A much better predictor of success would be, “What are the three ways you have grown the most over the past five years?” Don’t you think? : ) 

    Thanks Laura!

  • Thanks Mark. Even if/when I don’t comment, I’m here:) Thanks for that nice compliment:)

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  • Really great, honest piece. I couldn’t agree more that sometimes over-thinking and strategising something can box you in, and this couldn’t be truer of the one of the fastest-paced mediums known to this generation of professionals in this field. Fantastic! 

  • It sounds like this resonated with you! Thanks for letting me know.

  • Hi Mark,

    It sounds like you have a lot of great opportunities and that is a beautiful thing. Hope you are able to find a path that gives you the most enjoyment and offers the most success. I guess this is the burden of being multi-talented 😉

    I like that you are approaching this year with some flexibility. I have a hard time with the
    “wait and see” approach, but honestly, it is better than having to backtrack. I do like working with a distinct strategy. Clear goals, clear direction, clear plan of attack. But life doesn’t always give you that. Thanks for reminding us that a little flexibility and embracing  uncertainty can sometimes help you keep your sanity and encounter opportunities you would not have had if you stuck to a rigid plan.

    – Elyse

  • I love this article because your personal perspective describes the mindset of the entrepreneur as well as any definition I’ve seen. My favorite part is the last sentence – 

    “How do balance the need to stay numble with the benefit of a strategic plan?”

    I think you either accidentally or intentionally invented a new word that describes YOU as well as any definition I could imagine:

    num-ble: adj. -bler, -blest. 1. Modesty in behavior, attitude or spirit. 2) Quick, light or agile in movement or action

  • That’s awesome. Congratulations on your “non strategic” success this year!

  • Well, this reminds me of something we discuss in our home and in our office. In the office we talk about iteration after iteration as we grow our startup. We change frequently.

    In our home, some might say we have controlled chaos or that we have no strategy. We say we do indeed have a strategy — it simply differs from the norm. The fact that we have 3 generations living in the same household, 3 different start times for the “day jobs” that each of us still participate in, 1 six year old as well as 1 two year old and a business which overflows into bedrooms, dining and living rooms and the veranda means our strategy and schedule must actually function better than most.

  • That would be my preferred mode too but I don’t have that luxury at the moment. But I think it’s working out : ) 

  • Daggnabbit.  I corrected that word but it didn’t take. It’s a conspiracy and now i need to keep it in there or your comment will make no sense. I will just have to be numbler in the future. I need to do spellcheck before you arrive!!!

  • Thanks Laura!

  • Your home sounds like my office. As I said, controlled chaos. Thanks Yvonne!

  • I’ve enjoyed getting to know you via this blog and in person this year, Mark. It looks like your future is very bright, and I look forward to tracking your success. Of course my favorite part of this particular posting: Mistake = brilliantly executing an obsolete strategy

  • Thanks Brian. Look forward to collaborations with you in the future!

  • So, you are not going anywhere, right?? We will see you around, right??

    I sure hope so. :))

    You have always been the person with a warm heart and a great mind!! I certainly have a soft spot for you. May 2012 be the most successful yet!

  • Could you say or think that the end goal ~ where you want to be at the end of a year, or 5 years and or even 10 years is the long term focus (not really a strategy), however how you get there remains infinitely flexible. You can take the left fork or the right fork in the road…. spend more time speaking for part of the year, teaching for another part and resting on the beach meditating for the rest of it…… yet all roads lead to Rome…..because you know where you want to be in the end.

    Sometime back I meant to say thank you for being you, different & experienced…… and thank you for the opportunity to guest on the GROW blog in 2011. Gods speed for your continuing journey and much success (however YOU define it) for 2012.


  • Carla Bobka

    Great to hear Life has brought such an array of abundance to you this year. The gift of choices is priceless. Merry Christmas and Hell of a New Year to come.

  • Mark

    Oh no. I’m here Prince. Good to hear from you!

  • Mark

    Great to hear from you Carla. Best wishes to you and your family!

  • Mark

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and kind words Caroline! Always a delight to hear from you. Thanks for being a loyal reader and friend.

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  • Seeing someone be successful using the planning method that works best for me is sooooo encouraging. Thank you for warning of the perils of “brilliantly executing an obsolete strategy. 
     I have viewed my annual development work more as setting up my compass as opposed to a street-level road map to my destination. If someone had told me 5 years ago where I would be now, I wouldn’t believe them, yet I am incredibly happy with where I am. I stayed true to who I am and what I want and was willing to jump when opportunities presented themselves.Congratulations on all your success. May 2012 be even better.  

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  • I appreciate both of your points from a strategic and entrepreneurial perspective.. I’ve been following Steve Blank’s program for customer development. He discusses how you have to have customer development as well as product development in order to find product/market fit(asap). The lean method is a great ‘agile’ system of building, measuring, learning based on testing a hypothesis.. As usual, your post really dovetails in well. btw, since it’s impossible to predict a five year plan, especially as a startup, you must stay ‘numble’ and quick!

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