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The power of a singular strategic objective

Image of Post-it notes on a whiteboard for The power of a singular strategic objective
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At some point early in our careers, whether at business school or on the job, we all learn about objectives, strategies and tactics, often when we first stumble across them in a business or marketing plan.

Perhaps I should say we learn of them, because most people in business fail to grasp what they really are and how they relate to one another.

What sets objectives apart from strategies? What makes strategies different from tactics? And where do goals fit in, for that matter? We all assume we know, but it can get confusing, and fast.

Most plans serve up a handful of objectives, a litany of strategies that purportedly address them and a host of tactics which are sometimes only tangentially related, disjointed or both.

For some reason, the leaders charged with setting this all down on paper believe they need to:

  • Include a number of tactics to support each strategy (not necessarily)
  • Provide at least one strategy to mirror each objective (this is commonly where they get off track)
  • Serve up multiple objectives, lest someone conclude they hadn’t thought about it much

That’s why most so-called “strategic” plans are anything but. I use that word in quotes because the only thing strategic about many plans is the header at the top of the page.

I should know; I have written (hopefully mostly early in my career), some pretty incoherent plans. But I’ve also learned along the way, to the point where now my full-time job is helping companies navigate change. When strategic planning is what you get paid to do, you better know how to develop a coherent strategic plan.

Someone who knows how to do just that is UCLA professor Richard Rumelt, one of the world’s leading experts on corporate strategy (the McKinsey Quarterly once described him as “Strategy’s strategist”). In his seminal book, “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters,” Rumelt suggests that where the problem often begins is with “a scrambled mess of things to accomplish — a ‘dog’s dinner’ of strategic objectives.”

I can sure testify to that. If you want to create a truly strategic plan, here’s a simple rule with which to begin: limit yourself to a single, concrete and focused objective. Any more than that and your plan will shoot off into multiple directions. You’ll be lost before you begin. By keeping it singular, there will be no mistaking what you’re trying to accomplish.

This can feel intimidating, because having only one objective runs the risk of missing the mark or making the plan appear simplistic. But that’s a feature of this approach, not a bug. When you force yourself to identify the one thing the plan must accomplish, it really puts the heat on. You’d better get it right.

Crafting a strategic objective from different perspectives

Most people skip over a detailed analysis of objectives because they think they already know what the problem is. Why else would they need a plan? But no single individual in the organization has a corner on the challenge, and colleagues who have differing backgrounds and expertise often have different perspectives on what’s really necessary to accomplish.

We see this often when my firm engages management teams in strategic planning. We explore, in a variety of ways (both overt and covert), what each member believes the primary objective should be. The answers are always a multiple of the number of people involved.

Some look at things from a financial perspective. Others see the challenge as operational. Still others believe HR or marketing is the best lens through which to view what must be done. Even within each of those disciplines, there can be different perspectives.

Does the company need to raise awareness? Reposition itself? Improve customer loyalty? Better its margins? Stave off a competitor? Raise its stock price? Develop a new market? Improve its distribution system? Retain its staff? All of the above?

Different people make different assessments depending upon where they sit in the organization. They may not be contradictory or mutually exclusive, and none of them are necessarily wrong. But none of them are exactly right, at least initially. They’re parts of a whole — different views of the elephant.

The strategist’s first task, therefore, is to reconcile all these different perspectives, determine how they relate to one another, and condense, combine, overlay, overlap, delineate, distill, stitch together and/or synthesize them into an objective that is truly strategic — and, if achieved, would genuinely meet the need of the moment.

Sounds difficult? It is, but nobody said this stuff was easy.

“What one single feasible objective, when accomplished, would make the biggest difference?” asks Rumelt. That’s the question, and answering it is a critical first step in ensuring the team becomes aligned with a common goal so they can focus on accomplishing it.

With the proper attention, any initial “dog’s dinner” of strategic objectives can be reconciled into an understanding of what it all adds up to — what really must be accomplished. Doing so should be priority No. 1. If you’re trying to solve the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how good your solution is.

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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