At Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat: “Could you tell me, please, in which direction I should go from here?”
The cat responds: “It depends a lot on where you want to go. ”
A sense of direction is as essential for today’s businesses as it is for young Alice traveling in a strange fictional world. During times of rapid change, bold leadership helps an organization adapt. Leadership is one of nine elements that make up the structural capacity of any organization to change, according to research my colleague Kevin Murphy and I published in this summer’s issue. harvard business review cover article “How Good is Your Business at Change?” ”
It’s hard for people to be confident in change when they don’t know which direction to go. But how can leaders provide direction in today’s environment of chronic uncertainty, with its ever-increasing pace of change?
The conventional process for providing such strategic direction – the relatively rigid annual and triennial planning cycle – is on its way to making history. The business world is faced with rapid changes in customer behavior, rapidly changing technological trends, and increasingly aggressive competition, and this old model simply cannot keep up. If there was any doubt about it, the pandemic has made it clear how unsuitable fixed-cycle planning is in today’s dynamic environment. “The canned cycle is over, and the dynamic, adaptive and connective strategy is (finally) in it,” as my colleagues Herman Spruit and James Dixon write in their article. “How to breathe new life into strategy.
Developing and communicating clear strategic direction has important implications. I see many leaders today reinventing the way their executive committee spends its time. They make a clear distinction between their activity delivery program, with an emphasis on executing business operations on time and on budget, and their development program, which concerns strategic choices and the creation of new activities.
In their book Doing well Agile, my colleagues Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk and Steve Berez describe how Agile leadership teams spend 60% of their day in operations, 10% in strategy and 30% in people – only 25% in operations, 40% in strategy , and 35% on people. By making more room to discuss the often complex and ambiguous issues of strategy and people, these leaders strengthen their organization’s direction and allow them to flexibly adapt to new information.
The management team of a multi-billion dollar company has divided their meetings into meetings focused on delivery and development. During delivery meetings, team members solve problems and managers maintain constructive dialogues that they hope will accelerate results. Some are short company reviews, but many go deeper into exploring issues and correcting the course as needed, turning into coaching and experience-sharing sessions that develop both key talents and abilities.
Development sessions, on the other hand, often take place offsite and always include a guest speaker from outside the team. This person provides inspiration and stimulates new thinking and problem solving with unexpected and creative approaches. These gatherings are light on PowerPoint slide presentations and heavy on discussion. Executives check daily operating issues at the door and spend their time thinking about what they might be missing, what the competitors are doing, what customers are telling them, and where their industry is heading. These are not just lofty conceptual discussions. This group probes key questions that could be adapted for experimentation, such as a new prototype, for example. By exploring and creatively working to find answers together, leaders strengthen their common fabric of trust, alignment and collaboration.
We all have a fundamental human desire for clarity of purpose and direction. This is why seeing an entire map and being able to trace a route at each step of the way brings comfort, confidence and security. The commercial counterpart of this carefully mapped route is the three-year, fixed-cycle strategy. But our environment today is so dynamic that it just isn’t realistic anymore. The likelihood that you will need to adjust this plan along the way is almost certain.
The metaphor that works for me is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Years ago, when we lived in the Bay Area of California, I was amazed to watch the fog that frequently crept in from the Pacific Ocean to crawl across the deck like a soft white blanket. You couldn’t see well from side to side. As you walked through, you knew your destination but maybe only saw a few steps ahead.
As drivers crossing the Golden Gate on a foggy morning, today’s executives probably can’t see the exact route of the upcoming trip. Accepting that and putting in place systems for frequent thinking and redirecting is what makes navigation and success possible.