Defining Problems vs. Delivering Strategy
One night, after a baseball game, three umpires decided to go out for pizza and talk about the games they each worked that evening.
Conversation quickly moved to one of the most difficult challenges umpires face – calling balls versus strikes. The first umpire confidently affirmed, “There are balls and there are strikes, and I call them as they are!” The second umpire, with a furrowed brow said, “That’s not true. There’s balls and strikes, and I call them as I see them.” Finally, the third ump said, “You’re both wrong. There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.”
Often, business leaders get mired in differentiating strikes vs. balls (metaphorically, of course) to the detriment of understanding how the game is changing and what those changes mean to their organization. More to the point, the tendency to overemphasize defining problems distracts attention from meaningful, actionable strategy work.
Strategic management is an ongoing, dynamic process, comprised of leading for today, tomorrow and beyond. Today’s issues need resolution.
The question is: How does the problem de jour become a benefit to our business? When contextualized relative to the company’s long-term vision, issues can become connection points between today’s actions (including problem resolution) and tomorrow’s results.
How can leaders use business issues as strategic building blocks to move their organizations forward? Here are three pivots to help move a business from defining problems to strategic management.
Pivot No. 1: From eliminating pain points to a strategic management mindset
I recently worked with a CEO to organize a strategic planning session with his leadership team. When I asked what success looked like for the session, he held up his list of the top 10 pain points his managers want to resolve. For him, on first blush, success was fixing things that are causing his team and customers’ pain.
Focusing on removing pain points is a common but misplaced focus. There is nothing wrong with fixing things, but removing pain only gets the business to pain-free, not success. Success means performing activities aligned with the company’s vision — moving toward something intentionally defined, not away from something that doesn’t work.
The clearer a company is about what it is moving toward, the more successful it will be in executing its strategy. No successful company has a vision of simply being pain-free. There’s more to success than the absence of issues. However, used properly, problems (or pain points) can bring clarity to a business’s definition of success.
Pivot No. 2: From description to root cause
Often, businesspeople dwell on describing problems in great detail, followed by exhaustive analysis. Understanding a problem becomes relevant when leaders go beyond definition to root cause.
By getting to the root cause of an issue (perhaps disappointing financial results, declining employee engagement measures, or customer departures), the problem can inform a pivot to the right set of actions that will create the desired outcomes.
My book, “Leading from Zero: Seven Essential Elements of Earning Relevance,” is about earning, re-earning and sustaining relevance with stakeholders daily. Doing this requires a clear understanding of operating results — why a strategy works or falls short of producing expected outcomes. Deconstructing results and finding the root cause simply means understanding the set of activities and circumstances that created outcomes, then adjusting accordingly for different results.
Early in my career, I worked for a manager who said, “We pay for results in this company. Get the results or we’ll find someone who will.” Here’s a better message:
“Whatever results you create, let’s understand activities contributing to the outcomes, whether they are on plan, better, or worse than expected. When results meet expectations, we know what to continue; when they don’t, we can determine what needs to change to create what we expect.”
Understanding root cause leads to greater awareness and new ideas to fulfill the organization’s vision.
Pivot No. 3: From struggle to strength
An effective business strategy overweights attention to core competencies — the things a company does best — and steers clear of anything outside of that nucleus. This means leaders have to be honest with themselves and their organization about what their company does well and what would be better left to others.
Struggle is often an effect of engaging in activities, projects, or strategies that do not play to the company’s strengths. There is tremendous power in knowing what your company doesn’t do well or shouldn’t do at all. When a business is clear in its future-state vision, it’s easier to know which activities, decisions, hiring choices, or partnerships align — and which are out of scope.
Having this clarity helps avoid wasting time on activities that will never be a good fit with the business. This applies to the daily activities a business invests its time into, as well as bigger-picture endeavors like joint ventures or mergers and acquisitions.
In-N-Out Burger is a terrific example of playing to strengths. The do burgers, fries and shakes. No chicken sandwiches. No turkey sandwiches. No salads. They do burgers, fries and shakes exceptionally well (in the view of their customers, which is what counts). As evidence of capitalizing on strengths, count the number of cars waiting in line at an In-N-Out Burger drive-through any time of day.
There is power in problems when leaders pivot from defining problems and analyzing issues to extracting learnings that can guide the company’s strategic management process.