I love working with really smart people and most CEOs are remarkably smart. They can visualize competitors, substitute products, emerging markets, technological shifts and threatening risks all at once. Strategic thinking rarely leaves their heads. They love to dream about the possibilities, figure out puzzles and innovate. Most realize that at some point one must make a judgment and start the business, and they do.
But the strategic thinking continues. For example, as they sit at their kid’s six-hour swim meets, appearing to be watching swimmers, they are turning over variations of strategies in their heads. At other times, they miss hearing the reminders that their spouses give them about chores and duties – because their mind is humming away. And who can blame them? Thinking about strategy is interesting and fun, and is required at key junctures and strategic turning points for any business.
As an example, I recall one company I was involved with in the on-line business to consumer information space that has a steady business, churning out cash flow and profits year after year. The CEO had brilliant insights into the consumer profile and had a great idea about the next generation product that would leap ahead of his competitors. On several occasions he put together plans for the next six months to begin stepping in that direction, but each time, after a month or two, the CEO made big changes. Sometimes it was a new, “better” idea. Another time the change sprang from meeting an executive with special talents, and the CEO wanted her in the organization — to focus on her area of competence. Other times operational hiccups pulled resources and attention away from the strategy. A year later, nothing new had been finished. The core of the business was still generating revenue, but there was no growth. Worse yet, the leadership team believed that “change was the only thing they could count on” and knew not to be surprised if last month’s strategic priority was washed away by this month’s idea.
Strategy becomes a distraction when the company and its leadership are driving hard toward a specific goal or mission. Complete focus on execution is often required. Hard decisions are made about allocating resources to the primary goal. The troops are marching forward. Then, out of the blue, comes talk of a different objective. Talk about a new competitive threat. Talk about a new opportunity. Some of the troops scatter to reconnoiter the new strategy. One battalion thinks the core goal has been replaced, and marches off to the left. Another does an about-face, feeling upset about all their hard work being wasted. Progress toward the core objective is slowed or stopped, and significant effort will be required to get them pointed back in the right direction.
Sometimes it’s an over-exuberant CEO who starts the distraction. Sometimes it is discord in the top team that keeps multiple conflicting strategies alive. With the ultra-connected world we have, anyone in a company can be aware of the external environment, and sometimes the workforce distracts themselves based on the news they heard on the web.
Strategies for Mitigation
No CEO or top team should ever stop thinking strategically. But such thoughts and discussions should be done separately from the execution team. Top level executives should be easily able to discuss future strategy without confusing it with current execution priorities. But it will drive lower levels crazy with distraction, especially when the new strategy might mean an about-face. If the reconnaissance work to explore a strategy requires more than discussion, a separate team should be assembled to do just that, and to keep it low-key. Most strategic ideas that at first appear brilliant, upon review are discarded. Best that this happens in the background, over and over again, until one new strategy rises to the level of a rollout into execution. Once the strategy is being executed, communication from the CEO and top team should be regular and consistent, keeping everyone focused on the strategy in play.