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On strategic maturity
Are you Columbus or LaGuardia?
I recently had a back-and-forth with an executive I admire. We were on the subject of organizational strategy, and this interesting gem popped into my inbox:
“Vision and the strategies to realize that vision are not my strong suit. I spent my career sitting down at my desk every morning, trying to anticipate what opportunities the day would bring…I was always on commission or dependent on the profit of an undertaking, very much an eat-what-you-kill mentality. I have always been skeptical of business plans—men plan and the gods laugh.
When you look back on the events of the past year [impacting the organization], you could make a credible case that it looks like a plan had been executed, but there was no such plan at the beginning of the year. There was just a sense that there was opportunity to be seized as it presented itself.”
Without getting into details, the organization we were talking about is young. It’s still getting off the ground, feeling its way forward, crossing the river stone-by-stone.
In writing back to this friend, I immediately thought about mature versus budding organizations. There’s a continuum in development. Exploring to exploiting. Finding effectiveness to finding efficiencies. Every organization is at a certain level of maturity and this particular one is still newborn.
That puts it in the “exploring” phase. The “figuring out how to be effective” phase. Finding efficiencies and exploiting those efficiencies will come later.
Strategy is always a balance between design and adaptation, between firmness and flexibility.
Early on, there’s got to be sufficient flexibility to find the right opportunities. To get anything off the ground there must be a flexible mindset. This gets you going, gets you finding the spots where you can grow, where you can expand, where to cut, and where you should pull back.
That doesn’t mean you’re not thinking strategically. Just because you’re not building step-by-step, one-then-two-then-three approaches doesn’t mean you’re not working off a strategy.
All strategy can be reduced to two functions. There must always be a North Star to aim for. There must always be a compass that helps adjust along the way.
When you’re early on, when you’re exploring and seeking effectiveness—your North Star and compass are a little more general, a little less refined. When you’re later-stage, when you’re exploiting and seeking efficiencies—your North Star and compass are much more specific, much more precise.
Think Christopher Columbus versus Fiorello LaGuardia. Columbus aimed for what we now know as East Asia, and found a “New World.” LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York City, has dozens of airplanes from all around the world take off and land on a patch of land that’s only a few hundred acres total.
We’d say Columbus’s North Star and compass were crude but effective. We’d say LaGuardia’s modern airport operation is relatively precise and efficient. Both work in their own way.
Same difference with new, upstart organizations and mature, advanced organizations. Know whether you’re sailing for new worlds, or landing on familiar terrain—and then calibrate your strategy.