What prevents organizations from implementing strategy? Often, it’s the “tyranny of the urgent.” When it comes to executive attention, the pressing non-strategic matters of the day get all the attention, while critically important issues of long-term strategy remain undone. If you haven’t heard that expression before, the phrase “tyranny of the urgent” is attributed to Charles Hummel from his 1967 short publication of the same name. In his publication, Mr. Hummel noted the importance of setting priorities, rather than jumping from one pressing thing to the next without thought or purpose. One of his examples was the telephone as a “great disrupter” of thought – If a telephone could be thought of as disruptive in the 1960’s, consider how the barrage of e-mail messages, texts, and social media that is part of our daily existence affects managers.
This very issue—and the executive’s mandate to resist the urge to justify lack of action on strategy due to pressing current issues—is the focus of a great article by Ken Favaro, Don’t Let the Short-Term–Long-Term Tension Drag Your Strategy Down, in last month’s strategy+business. He concedes that balancing preparation for tomorrow with the management issues of today demands trade-offs – and offers some very practical advice. First, what not to do: Avoid tactical approaches to problem solving that are disguised as strategy – but really are not strategic. This means sidestepping those organizational tactical initaitives that are not tied to long-term strategy. For example, a goal of being the lowest-cost provider of service; or a focus on financial engineering solely to produce a wider margin; or excessive investments in innovation, cross selling, or market share acquisition – solely for the sake of innovation, cross selling, or market share. Any of these examples could be great tactics for a particular strategic approach to the market – but they are not strategic in and of themselves.
Second, Mr. Favaro makes a recommendations for resolution of conflicts of priorities. His suggestion? Focus on five key strategic questions:
- What businesses should we be in?
- How do we add value to our businesses?
- Who are our target customers?
- What is our value proposition to those customers?
- What capabilities make us best at how we add value to our individual businesses and how each business delivers its value proposition?
The inescapable dilemma for every organization is that it must invest in the future to have a future, and the role of the leaders role is to strike this balance. When questions of priorities—in time, focus, or resources—inevitably appear, re-framing those priorities in the context of these core strategic questions help executive strike the balance between today’s investments and the vision for future sustainability.
While this may sound simple, the fact is that fewer than 40% of executives are successful in striking this balance. So as you work to put this advice to good use in your organization, keep in mind the words of Peter Drucker in this book People and Performance: Managers must “so to speak, keep their noses to the grindstone while lifting their eyes to the hills—which is quite an acrobatic feat.”
To continue this discussion on leadership and strategic vision, join me at the upcoming 2014 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, for my opening keynote session, “The Blind Man & The Elephant – Understanding The Health & Human Service Market Shifts & The Challenges Of Making Change Happen,” where I will be joined by James Gavin, MSW, President & Chief Executive Officer, Community Care Behavioral Health; and Dennis Morrison, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer, Netsmart Technologies.