Fierce Execution: Choosing the Strategic Guiding Path

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After a healthy diversion through incubation, you have stoked your creative bonfire. So now you must use this energy and get back to work. At this juncture the problem needs to be already well defined, and general ideation has already taken place. You and your creative team may already have an instinctual path you want to take with your ideas. There’s been assurance that you have deconstructed your challenge in detail to ensure success. You’ve also explored all available resources—financial, human, and technological. By going through the first four steps, you may have already achieved great results. Now it’s time to refine your ideas. Keep shooting holes. Call bullshit on one another. Play your toughest customers. The most intelligent way to understand which is the best strategy to implement, is by identifying the series of actions that are most closely aligned to the initial objectives defined. Prototypes are created. Testing becomes more analytical, critical, and intense.

At this stage, there may be more questions that come up, but you need to keep your team focused on the goals. Businesses may challenge how to fully leverage this process, and some may even think that it is counter-productive. In one scenario I’ve had to stop software product development because it was clear that the product and end-user goals were not clearly defined. My client had been in development for more than five years.

The CEO was not the type to sweat the details. Unfortunately, the business requirements of his platform demanded that a very detailed data management process be implemented in order for the product to work correctly. He just kept pressing his development team forward even though many of his developers had many questions about what they were building. This resulted in misalignment throughout the organization. My proposed goal was to align the entire product development process with their business operations. He finally agreed. After doing a full-immersive discovery, I uncovered countless issues and unresolved problems—many of which had to do with employees simply not being heard—their ideas under-valued.

They needed someone to basically listen to them. So I listened intently and created a comprehensive strategic alignment proposal that thoroughly identified all major challenges within the organization. I then helped them do a lot of “housecleaning” in terms of building the appropriate business processes in place between each department. I then created a custom innovation platform for them—one in which fearless iteration and prototyping could be achieved. The progress they made within a two week period was phenomenal, because they had a much better understanding of the company’s shared vision, and their goals in building the product.

Design legend Charles Eames once famously said: “design depends largely on constraints”. Dieter Rams would agree: “My aim is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to the best possible advantage.” From the chaos of diverse perspectives comes the order of integrated thinking and design intelligence. But you have to have a clear understanding of your challenges, diagnose the problem correctly, and then implement the appropriate process. Design intelligence delivers results that drive innovation throughout the organization. But this culture must be established and new ideas must be embraced. This “fail fast” approach is well known in the entrepreneurial hotbed of Silicon Valley, but it can also be adopted within any industry—as industries transform with time, so must the businesses within them in order to remain competitive. Creativity, at the end, may start with hundreds of seemingly useless ideas, but this is why you need to shape them in a meaningful way. This is the nature of intelligent design. Aesthetics and structure enhance an organization’s ability to achieve their goals and overcome their challenges.

Richard Rumelt, one of the world’s most renowned thought leaders on the subject of strategy, posits that a great deal of modern writing about strategy deals with the detailed economic logic of “competitive advantage.” His book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy argues that a coherent strategy can be, by itself, a significant source of competitive advantage. The advantage flows from coordination and focus as well as from resolving the impossible ambiguity of reality into a problem that fits the organization’s resources and abilities, a problem on which the organization can actually go to work.  This way of looking at things extends beyond business situations to non-for-profit and military contexts.

One of a leader’s most powerful tools is the creation of a proximate objective—one that is close enough at hand to be feasible. According to Rumelt, a proximate objective names an accomplishment that organization can reasonably be expected to achieve. Good strategy has a basic underlying logic: coherent action backed up by an argument, an effective mixture of thought and action. Rumelt calls this basic underlying structure the kernel. A good strategy may consist of more than the kernel, but if the kernel is absent or misshapen, then there is a serious problem. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: (1) a diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge, (2) a guiding-policy for dealing with the challenge, and (3) a set of coherent-actions that are designed to carry out the guiding-policy.

Many people and companies want to emulate Apple and study what the company has done. I believe that in trying to learn from Steve Jobs and Apple it is very useful to pay attention to what he did not do. In compiling this short list, I have used ideas and phrases in common use by managers and business consultants:

  • He did not “drive business success by a relentless focus on performance metrics.” Success came to Apple by having successful products and strategies, not by chasing metrics.
  • He did not “motivate high performance by tying incentives to key strategic success factors.” Apple did not run a decentralized system based on pressuring individuals to deliver targeted business results.
  • He did not have a strategy “built through participation by all levels to achieve a consensus which resolves key differences in perspectives and values.” Strategy at Apple is essentially driven from the top.
  • He did not waste time on the delicate distinctions among “missions,” “visions,” and “strategies.”
  • He did not use acquisitions to hit “strategic growth goals.” Growth was the outcome of successful product development and accompanying business strategies.
  • He did not seek to engineer higher margins by chasing rust-belt concepts of “economies of scale.” He left such antics to HP.

Creative constraints are symbiotic to design. This also proves true for intelligently designed business models. This is why it is important to understand that sometimes, it is more important to choose what not to do—to eliminate the ideas that do not drive the business forward as much as other initiatives. This needs to be clearly prioritized. These are the constraints that need to be applied to product development. This can be extremely valuable especially to companies in an early stage.

I’ve come across visionary CEOs that have great ideas, but lack the ability to execute on them because they have not clearly defined what Richard Rumelt calls, a proximate objective—a realistic goal that the company can achieve. An important lesson to learn early on is that you simply can’t be everything to everyone—at least not yet. By understanding the constraints that need to be developed, this will help your organization create meaningful products, incubating others, and will establish a highly innovative culture and process that can be repeated to deliver results and often exceed your initial objectives.

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