Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Let What If's Kill a Big Idea

Beginning with this article, I'm going to lay out new concepts in strategic planning/thinking, which go contrary to prevailing wisdom about strategic planning methodology. Then I'm going to explain a new process called Zen Strategy.

I'll begin by addressing the ubiquitous SWOT Analysis. Most strategic planning sessions begin with a SWOT (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) analysis.

Stupid waste of time.

Yep, stupid waste of time. Why?

Innovations happen because a person with a BIG IDEA doesn't know it can't work. It was a great idea and they acted on it. If obstacles came along, they figured out how to overcome them. Simple.

Why would you want to begin a process of coming up with a BIG IDEA by first thinking of all the obstacles and reasons it can't work? Furthermore, most obstacles we try to predict 1) never happen or 2) don't happen the way we envisioned. It's a futile exercise in fantasy to begin strategy planning by doing an environmental scan, trying to predict what we might encounter, in order not to be "blindsided." Guess what? At some point you'll be blindsided anyway. Get over it.

And that leads me to a second point that goes against prevailing wisdom. Studying the competition has no place in the strategic planning process. Another stupid waste of time. There is only one competitor, you. This can be a collective "you" as the leaders of an organization, as well as just you, the individual.

Am I saying you should never scan your environment or study your competition? Absolutely not. Of course you should. Not doing so could be fatal.

Confused? Here is what I'm saying: environmental scanning and studying your competition are TACTICAL activities that should take place in REAL TIME, not as part of a planning or visioning process.

When you come up with a BIG IDEA, you don't want any "what if" thoughts to creep in. The last thing you want to do is kill a big idea before it ever gets a chance to breathe. If it's a good idea, your only focus should be on how to act on it. Pay attention to real threats in real time and defend your idea against them in real time.

An illustration. I have a goal to cross a river in my kayak and land at a specific point on the opposite shore. I happen to know there are changing currents, unseen debris and crocodiles hidden in the river, but I'll deal with them when and if I encounter them. I set a course for the other side, and making my estimate of the best course based on what I can actually see in front of me, I begin paddling. As I paddle and encounter ACTUAL obstacles, I make adjustments. Frequently, I glance up to see where I am in relation to where I want to land. I continue paddling, dealing with obstacles and adjusting until I reach the point I'm headed for.

There are only three important steps in this process. Pick a destination, paddle towards it, and adjust course when obstacles are encountered. Most importantly, the course is driven only by the landing point (big idea), not real or imagined threats.


  1. One of my favorite adages; don't the perfect become the enemy of the good! Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Thanks, Tracy! That quote is well applied here.

  3. At a point in the not too distant past it was a "Big Idea" to transport all sorts of things by truck across The United States, instead of by rail. If at some point if many of the trucking pioneers had stopped to complete a SWOT or SWOT-T (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, and Trends)analysis the industry may have been given up before it had a fair chance to thrive.

    Transporting large amounts of cargo by truck is now common-place and rail is used when the shipment is particularly large and not time-sensitive. Innovation comes from identifying something that does not currently exist and engaging fortitude and desire to the implementation process.

    "What if..." is best left to choosing what to eat for dinner.

    Ozzie Mazzuca
    NATMI - Linked-In

  4. Your point about innovation is dead on, Ozzie.

  5. I tend to agree, yet disagree. Ozzie presents a past point in the era of "if I don't do it someone else will". Today, we have over 650k trucking companies, large and small. Today's trucking as diverse as they are, need a SWOT. Especially if the company is a large one. Small niche companies need to take another approach, but does not necessairly need to SWOT, but only need the OT.

    Solos need to be able understand what they are faced with and can they survive? The solos, mini-fleets and the maxi-fleets need to know what is available before they can turn the wheel down the road.

    To analyize what is out there, SWOTs will get you farther down the road today than playing the huristic game, then having the "hammer" smack your thumb.

  6. Rainier4311, I'm not of the belief that a situational analysis should never be made, but that it shouldn't be part of the strategic visioning process. Rather, it should be part of the real-time situational analysis employed while executing on the vision.