I recently read an article in an airline magazine about the resurgence of something called paint by numbers. The idea came about in the early 1950s, and it’s a mix between a coloring book and painting on a canvas. It allows anyone to create a detailed work of art, even if they’ve never taken an art class.
The idea is that by starting with a clear picture of the desired result, then using a step-by-step framework, anyone can create something beautiful.
Like painting by numbers, effective strategic management begins with a clear image of an organization’s future state -- its vision -- that frames the focus of its activities. Strategy creates a framework to make decisions and perform activities aimed at animating a specific future state. Perform activities that align with the future state picture, and the vision comes to life. Simple, right?
One of the most common challenges to effective strategic management of an organization is vison drift -- losing sight of the future state and, as a result, fragmenting attention and distracting resources.
Most organizations develop some type of formal operating strategy to bring the vision to life, documenting what they do (mission), why they do it (purpose), and how they fulfill their mission (strategy). Companies that don’t have a formal, documented strategy may have a policy or procedure manual which guides decisions and activities.
When it comes to implementation, there are three common expressions of organizational strategy: Intentional plan, say vs. do and the aural plan.
- Intentional plan: An organization mindfully designs its strategy based on competencies, access to resources, and competitive environment. Activity execution closely aligns with the plan.
- Say vs. do: Begins intentionally, then evolves to a place where company activities aren’t guided by the plan and may not align with the vision (think about the state of New Year’s resolutions by late January).
- Aural plan: Spoken over time, perhaps by the founder, but is not well-documented and may not provide clear decision-making guidance for the business or through job descriptions.
Clarity and candor about how your organization is expressing its strategy prepares you to address questions around how your daily activities align with the plan and what you are doing to avoid vision drift.
Drift occurs when diversions, not vision, defines the strategy. Engaging in products, projects or ventures outside core competencies without a clear rationale behind the tact are examples of resource-draining diversions. In “How the Mighty Fall,” author Jim Collins describes the "undisciplined pursuit of more" as one of the "five stages of decline" in a company. Collins wrote that companies in this stage “stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence, or both."
Avoiding vision drift
Here are five questions to help assess your role in focusing the organization’s attention on activities aligned with brining the vision to life:
- Which of the activities I engage in are most closely aligned with the vision?
- Which of the activities I engage in are out of alignment with the vision?
- How am I assuring that my team members are engaging in the activities most closely aligned with our vision?
- How effectively am I addressing activities taking place in the organization that don’t appear to align with the vision?
- What changing factors outside or within our company are the best markers informing the need to refine our strategy?
Manifesting organizational vision is the result of all activities performed within the company. Attaining and sustaining focus requires leadership discipline, in particularly, knowing when to say “no” to new shiny objects (a.k.a. diversions).
Strategy is how we bring the organization’s vision to life. Vision rarely changes; strategy must be dynamic and evolve. Intentionally evolving strategy to more effectively animate the organization’s vision is an essential role of leaders; avoiding vision drift is, too.
Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is "Leading from Where You Are" (January 2020). For more information, visit Coffaro's website.