Constantly bombarded with information about their industry and competition; customers and prospects; operations and team; leaders have a tough role. They must stay abreast of trends and developments seemingly unrelated to their business which may provide an innovative idea or solution breakthrough.
The talent of “anticipation” often separates success from failure. While some leaders bet on a strategy and fail, others miss opportunities by failing to take timely action. Perhaps the most dangerous leader is the one who frequently jumps from one strategy to another. In my lexicon, this is the “red balloon” strategic leader. Tomorrow’s strategy is based on the latest article, blog, book or cocktail party conversation – “My friend’s business just tried this and saved thousands.” Please don’t even think about letting this leader go to an industry-wide conference (unless your current strategy du jour is obviously not working). “Oh look, there’s a red balloon. Let’s go chase that.”
Ninety-nine red balloons floating in the summer sky, Panic bells, it’s a red alert there’s something here from somewhere else. The war machine, it springs to life, Opens up one eager eye focusing it on the sky as ninety-nine red balloons go by- Goldfinger
For an organization to be successful, however, it must consistently progress through a process of continuous change, improvement, innovation and renewal. Some of those “red balloons” need to be chased. The next breakthrough – the next product will likely stem from “outside-the-box thinking” – to use the old cliché.
Having once worked in an organization where core vision and resulting strategic plan changed ANNUALLY for four straight years, I speak from personal experience that this environment is frustrating and confusing. A red-balloon organization is rudderless. What invigorated the team yesterday is suddenly relegated to the back burner. What seemed clear and obvious suddenly seems murky and uncertain. Such an environment is draining. It is hard to be engaged and energized under these circumstances.
So what can one do to improve organization or department focus but not miss significant opportunities for advancement?
Know Thyself: Many organizations have well-thought-out strategic plans and objectives. Yet so many easily get off-track by failing to understand what makes them unique. Self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses helps prioritize problems to be solved and future investments to be made. “Red balloon” investments can be considered against a broader backdrop of fit with plan objectives, talents and resources.
Solicit Input: Decision-making, (especially strategic decision-making) need not be an individual sport. Seeking team feedback and participation can result in better outcomes. Diversity provides increased perspective, helps mitigate groupthink and can identify potential conflicts and pitfalls before a new direction is pursued.
Allow for experimentation in the strategic plan: Most long-term strategic plans start with a vision and end in mind and create a roadmap from current state to desired future state. However, not every plan can consider every permutation and possible environment change. Some portion of the plan and budget needs to be set aside to experiment. I recognize most organizations run lean, but without that “Learn-Do-Adjust-Repeat” element, progress will be difficult to come by.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: The more the team understands the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats driving the organization’s strategy, the more engaged they will be. When strategy shifts or when an experiment is launched or curtailed, take the time to explain why. Communication builds trust and understanding. Such support goes a long way when the going gets tough.