Your business does not care what you want

As some of my geekier readers may have noticed, I very rarely talk about “goals” in this newsletter.  Indeed I very rarely talk about goals in my projects either.  Goals just aren’t a particularly big thing in my interpretation of strategy – which is pretty weird when you think about it, because by most definitions goals are absolutely fundamental to the discipline.

After all, what is a strategy if not a plan to achieve a desired goal?  And therefore how can you possibly hope to formulate a strategy without first having a goal to point at?

In general, for strategy “in the abstract”, this is true.  Of course strategy needs a goal.  You start with what you want to achieve – running a marathon, moving to the Bahamas, dumping your boyfriend, whatever – and then strategise accordingly.  You would think therefore that the same thing must apply to business strategy too.  You begin with your goal for your business, and strategise according to that.  Simple no?

But that isn’t the case.  In reality when it comes to business strategy, goals aren’t only unnecessary – they’re downright dangerous.

To understand why this is you need to grasp something that’s quite subtle but super important:

You and your business are two separate entities with differing priorities.

To wrap your head around this, think about your business as something akin to a natural organism.  Like any organism it has only two drives: to survive and grow.  That’s it.  That’s all that motivates it.  You on the other hand are a human being, with far more complicated motivations.  Yes, you also want to survive and grow, but you what other things too.  You want “fulfilment”, you have preferences and biases, you want to solve problems that are unrelated to your personal procreation.  You care about all sorts of stuff that your business as a “dumb” bacteria-like organism doesn’t give a shit about.

And this has the potential to put the two of you at odds.

You see if you have goals for your business which are different from raw growth and survival, then you run the risk of “polluting the water” and preventing it from fulfilling those priorities.  To give you an example, imagine if you founded your business with the wider goal of “fighting climate change”.  This is all well and good, but you have to realise your business couldn’t care less about climate change.  All it cares about is growth and survival.  This means that it might find a growth path which has nothing to do with fighting climate change.  Heck, it might even find a path which contributes to it!  The business doesn’t care.  All it cares about is its own hide.

This leaves you as the founder with two options.  Either let the business follow its direction of growth, and put your personal ambitions on the back burner, OR overrule the business and force it to conform with your specific goal.

The consequence of this second decision should be obvious: it will either stunt the business or kill it altogether as a sustainable profitable enterprise.  This isn’t necessarily a problem of course – after all your goal was to fight climate change, not to nurture a successful business.  Perhaps you could create a charity instead (charities are essentially businesses which are forced to sacrifice organic survival in service of an externally imposed goal).

But you’ve got to accept you can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too.  You can’t say “I want to have a successful business, but I want it to succeed in this particular way”.

Don’t get me wrong, it might grow and survive in accordance with your preferences.  It’s certainly possible.  But you cannot count on it.

This then is why I generally don’t bother with goals.  Most of the time I am developing strategies for companies, and so the goal is “baked in”.  It’s survival and growth, nothing more.  Making the business the most healthy and thriving version of itself it can be.  Yes, I’ve been hired by the founder / CEO, they are my client.  But I am not creating a strategy for them, with the business merely acting as a “tool” to achieve their wider goal.  That would be a very different project.  No, my true client is really the business itself, “spiritually” at least.

Naturally this distinction rarely matters, and I pretty much never have to point it out.  Most founders are more than happy with having their businesses thrive, and in that respect they are aligned.  But I do think that in the wider strategy world, beyond my own projects, this is a dangerous point of confusion.  The focus on setting particular goals (beyond mere survival and growth) has the potential to set founders against their own businesses in thorny and unpredictable ways.  They do not appreciate that what they want may not be what the business wants.

So I encourage you to always ask the question: just whose strategy is this anyway?  Is it the company’s?  Or is it yours?

There’s nothing wrong with either one.  But you must know the difference.

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