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Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing was a cautionary tale (one that warns of the consequences of actions and inactions). It did not provide “answers” to the issues it exposed. Instead, the film reflected back to its audience their own perspectives on prejudice and compliance. The online world teems with sites telling us what the right thing is and how to do it. Most are formulaic and include only vague, hazy actions we should be taking – thinking, imagining, considering, etc. Some sites are more deeply philosophical, emphasizing integrity, being aware of the long-term effects of our actions, and committing to continuous improvement. The best way of figuring out what your right thing is starts with collecting some ideas and examining some points of view. 

A Russian folk tale says there were two signs at a fork in the road. 

One said take this path and you will lose your horse; the other said take this path and you will lose your head. The legendary American philosopher Yogi Berra said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is a poem that poked fun at a friend who would endlessly regret not having chosen different paths (Frost’s advice was to take the road less traveled). Bawdy sex symbol Mae West said that when given a choice between two evils, “I always pick the one I never tried before.”

How to figure out what the right thing is.

When we see companies telling their employees to just “do the right thing,” we know failure is as inevitable as was Nancy Reagan’s do-the-right-thing strategy for eliminating illicit drug use: “Just say no.” A vaguely defined term like do the right thing is a problem for people working in groups because we all have different ideas of what it means.

Strategies and tactics are vague terms, too. Most of us think them to be so synonymous as to be interchangeable, but they’re not, and it is important to understand the differences. Here are several ways to think about strategy in terms of its intertwined partner, tactics.

  • Strategy is defined by leaders – Tactics are implemented by managers. 
  • Strategy is thinking – Tactics are actions. 
  • Strategy is the what and why – Tactics are the how and when.
  • Strategy is our long-term goal – Tactics are the day-to-day things we do to reach our goals.
  • Strategy concentrates on doing the right thing – Tactics concentrate on doing things the right way.
All CEOs claim to have a strategy. 

Would you be shocked to discover how poorly most CEOs communicate their strategies? I was when I found these three remarkable bits of data from three highly reliable sources:

  • A Harvard Business Review study found that, on average, 95% of a company’s employees either don’t understand its strategy or are completely unaware of it. Oy! When employees don’t know where we’re going, how can they help us get there?
  • An MIT/Sloan study found 67% of senior managers could not say what their company’s strategy was. Wow! Isn’t it their responsibility to manage the day-to-day activities that support their company’s strategy?
  • A McKinsey study showed 79% of board members did not fully understand the company’s strategy. Hey! Isn’t the CEO’s strategy one of the most important things board members are supposed to approve?
Who changed the way business is done in the United States more than anyone in American business history?

Bruce Henderson left the management consulting firm Arthur Little after challenging the status quo too often to suit his bosses. When he started his new consulting company, he gathered his brain trust together and asked them to suggest ways they thought the company should specialize. Every one of his executives had a personal favorite but not a single one of their ideas was a game-changer or paradigm shifter. Every executive was looking at the exact same pile of assets and resources, but none saw a truly different way to put things together to strategic advantage. None other than Henderson, that is.

When Henderson suggested they choose business strategy as their consulting specialty, his cadre of executives unanimously dismissed the idea as a bad one. When they grumbled that most potential customers “won’t even know what we are talking about,” Henderson said “That’s the beauty of it – we’ll be the ones who define it.” The company is known today as the Boston Consulting Group. Strategy consultant Richard Koch wrote this about the man: “Bruce always did what he thought was right. Nearly always, his view was original, penetrating, and incredibly full of insight. That’s how he invented a whole new field of thought and fundamentally changed the way we think about business.”

Survival of the fittest.

For millions of years there was biological competition for essential resources. As school kids, most of us heard about a thing called survival of the fittest. In some surroundings, the biological survivors – the fittest – were the biggest. In other habitats the survivors were the fastest or the strongest. Individual adaptive strategies were custom-tailored to their environments. The most important thing they all had in common? The winners were the ones that did the best job of adjusting to what was going on around them. 

When asked if evolution can be planned for in business, Henderson says that’s where strategy comes in. His definition of strategy is the plan that defines a business’s competitive advantage. The big difference between biological competition and business competition? Biological change only happens slowly and gradually while business change can occur swiftly and dramatically – especially when the very bold accelerate the pace of change by taking a road less traveled.

Henderson says the search for a strategy is an ongoing process that begins with understanding who we are and where we are.

He doesn’t say that in spite of all the tools at our disposal, strategies are really only someone’s best guess. A wise colleague liked to say every management strategy is a best guess, never perfectly clear or fully confident. So what’s the best way to arrive at our best guess? I believe it is to gather facts and insights that challenge, confirm, and contradict existing beliefs. I share the conviction of those who believe one of the key functions of research is to dissent from the popular when it is necessary, important, and warranted by the data. 

The evolution of business strategy.

Economist John Kay tells us the evolution of business strategy began in the 1960s with the growth of corporate planning. Back then, industry leaders emphasized core competencies, so copycats followed along. Time passed, leaders changed the direction of business by emphasizing diversification, and the trend chasers jumped on that bandwagon, too. Sure enough, leaders changed direction again (that’s why they’re leaders), pivoting back to core competencies while me-too followers tripped over themselves trying to catch up.

Doing the right thing in the right way connects strategy and tactics to another set of interrelated terms that are often confused.

Effectiveness is doing the right thing and efficiency is doing something the right way. To succeed, we must do the right thing and do it the right way. Getting one wrong causes trouble. Getting two wrong? Sharpshooter Annie Oakley liked to say “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

The simple 2 x 2 slide above makes it quite clear that our best chance of success comes when we do the right thing the right way. The “right thing” is a strategy that encompasses business, product, customers, employees, conditions, circumstances, and surroundings. The “right way” means following best practices for allocating resources, assigning responsibilities for every action along the way, setting timelines for start and completion dates, and measuring progress. Neither strategy nor tactics have any value if they aren’t measured.

If we’re off the mark because we chose the wrong business or the wrong product or the wrong customers, or we’ve got the right strategy but are using the wrong tactics, we’ve got to push a very heavy load up a very steep hill. We are as unlikely to reach our goal as Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology who was doomed to endlessly push an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll down every time without ever reaching the top.

Economists say formulating strategies is easy. 

The problem is implementing and executing them. Business success needs opportunistic strategies and adaptive tactics that have been carefully thought out and planned. Too many strategies are wish-driven and not supported by the right tactics.

In war, the winning generals are the ones with the best strategies for attacking and defending, because one without the other ruins your chances. The 29,000 Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg didn’t have the resources to hold out against the Union siege. Destitute and starving, they had no choice but to surrender to General U.S. Grant. George Armstrong Custer was unprepared for Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn and you know what happened there.

Gain competitive advantage by taking a strategic road less traveled.

Does your organization do the right things the right way by: 

  • Making sure employees, senior managers, and board members understand the CEO’s strategy?
  • Understanding how business, product, customers, employees, conditions, circumstances, and surroundings continually interact?
  • Predicting risk and return with sufficient accuracy and confidence to reward their commitment?
  • Acting effectively and efficiently in all things?

The only thing constant is change, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. He who hesitates is lost, but look before you leap. As Shoeless Joe Jackson advised rookie Archie Graham in Field of Dreams, look for low and away – but watch out for in your ear.

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