One of the things about strategy that makes it so slippery (and occasionally hard to sell), is this:
You can get away without it.
Don’t get me wrong, you’ll be way better off with a strategy than without. But at the same time it’s not like, say, branding, or IT services, or accountancy, or any number of other things that a business simply can’t operate without.
The fact is you can operate without strategy – as about 95% of businesses prove every single day.
Not only can you operate without a strategy, you can actually thrive. Falling ass-backwards into success is not only possible, it’s actually quite common. Judging from the internal documents you occasionally see leaked into the public domain, it probably accounts for the success of some of the world’s biggest brands.
No, a strategy may make you more likely to succeed, it may make the margin of your success greater, and it may put you in control of your success – but it isn’t a pre-requisite for success by any means.
This then raises an interesting question:
How should a business do strategy if it’s already doing really well?
Should they bother? Do they run the risk of ruining a good thing? Is it better not to rock the boat? Should they wait until they “need” one?
I’ve got a lot of experience with this question since – perhaps surprisingly – the majority of my clients came to me when they were already in a pretty good place (displaying a level of proactivity that probably accounts for that success).
Based on that, I’d say such brands have three options which apply in different circumstances. Let’s take a look.
1. DO NOTHING
The first temptation of course for any brand who are performing well is to just keep doing what they’ve been doing. And indeed I would agree – if you’re riding the wave, you want to keep it going as long as possible.
The issue such brands have, however, is that they probably don’t understand the reasons for their success. Many businesses do well not because of their management, but in spite of them. The bosses think the business is all about X, but really it’s all about Y.
In the short term this doesn’t really matter, because Y will continue to happen regardless. But eventually tensions will start to surface. As the business pulls in one direction, the management will pull in the other. In such cases growth slows, and things start to erode. In response the team may start pushing even harder at their false hypothesis, which of course accelerates the erosion still further. Nobody understands how they’ve suddenly turned from rockstars to clowns overnight – with the answer of course being that they were never truly in control of the brand’s success in the first place.
Clearly then, I don’t advocate doing nothing, and just assuming the party will continue indefinitely. It won’t.
Far better is…
2. MOVE FROM UNCONSCIOUS TO CONSCIOUS STRATEGY
Although it’s counterintuitive, the time when a brand is flying is the perfect time to strategise.
Because that’s the time when you have the most evidence for what works on your hands. Things are clicking, and you just need to figure out why, and capture it – a far easier task than strategising when things are going wrong.
A business that is succeeding despite a lack of strategy doesn’t really have “no strategy”; it actually has an “unconscious strategy”. A strategy that is taking effect, but which the team isn’t fully aware of. In this instance the number one priority should be to bring that strategy into consciousness so you can harness it, and ride it long into the future.
When you’ve done this, you won’t only find that it accurately describes why things are working at the moment. You’ll also find that it illuminates new opportunities, and ways to pursue it more aggressively, thus accelerating growth and increasing the margin of success.
When things are going well it’s actually pretty easy to make them go better – and becoming conscious of your unconscious strategy is the way to do that.
3. REVIEW AND RENEW
Both of the above points assume that the business in question either has no strategy whatsoever, or is misguided / confused as to what its strategy really is.
There is a third possibility of course – that your assumption is right, and that you do indeed have a pretty solid strategy that accurately reflects how things are working.
This of course is the closest scenario to simply needing to do nothing. But it’s not quite that simple.
First, you should work on refining the strategy into its most effective articulation – the one that’s easiest to understand, remember, and execute from. We looked at some techniques for this a couple of weeks ago.
Second, you of course need to think about execution. “But I’m already executing!”, you might say. “The business is doing well, remember?”. True, however the thing to remember is that in order to stick to a single strategic path, execution must change constantly. You need to keep moving to stand still, since the market and wider world will always be moving around you.
Nike are a good example of a brand who have remained strategically “static” through the process of constant executional change. By comparison Apple have remained fairly static at an executional level, resulting in quite big changes at the strategic level (whether this is accidental or deliberate I’m not sure…).
As a result regular strategic re-focusing sessions are essential, to avoid unintentional drift.
Bottom line then, not only does a successful brand need to strategise, but they are in the exact optimal moment to do so.
Unless you’ve done a strategic exercise, executed on it, and then grown as a result, the chances are that you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know why you work. And even if you do, you probably haven’t ordered that knowledge in such a way as to action it effectively and indefinitely.
So strike while you can, and turn what could be a flash in a pan, into resounding, lasting success.