I recently visited a pizza buffet restaurant with some colleagues. It had been a long day, so I had no hesitation in piling my plate high with a whole range of different pizza slices (well, everyone likes pizza, right?).
As I returned to my table, I saw a young kid at the self-service soda machine. He grabbed a cup and his eyes lit up – there were so many choices of soda that he could choose. After half a second of hesitation, he made his choice. He was going to have all of them! He took his cup and mixed all the sodas together: Cola, lemonade, orange-fizz and more. Next he went over to the dessert aisle and added some maple syrup and chocolate chips to his soda. What happened next was rather unfortunate: He took one gulp of the brown, sludgy concoction that he had created, and his face contorted and frowned. He’d created something virtually undrinkable – and it certainly wasn’t what he was expecting.
Luckily, a friendly waitress helped him to dispose of the sticky and sugary soda he’d created, and he went back choosing a single soda this time. As he did, it struck me how some organisations inadvertently and quite unintentionally treat their business strategy in this way. They flounder from market to market and from project to project in an unplanned and uncontrolled way, without seeking internal or external feedback. They launch all sorts of contradictory projects, products and initiatives and just end up creating confusion. They ‘mix their sodas’ too far. All options seem attractive, so rather than choosing just a few they try to choose all of them – and end up with an outcome they certainly didn’t desire.
So often we hear stories of projects and products failing because the organisation didn’t have a clear vision of what problem they were trying to solve or what direction the product or project was intending to take. An even more destructive pattern occurs when the organisation itself don’t have a clear and communicated vision of where it is going. With no sense of direction, it’s impossible to know whether the next idea, project or initiative is a good one.
As organisations grow and become successful – whether they are a successful mid-size firm or a global multinational – having a clear mission and clear strategy (underpinned by a consistent set of values) is crucial. Business Analysis techniques like MOST (mission, objectives, strategy, tactics) help organisations to consider and crystallise their direction. These techniques also help with the communication of the strategy, so that everyone, including front-line workers, know the macro-level strategic direction that the company is pursuing. Of course, it is equally important, having articulated a strategy that the organisation monitors the external environment (and listens to its market) to ensure it is still appropriate. Ongoing business analysis becomes critical.
What if strategy becomes scattergun?
If an organisation unknowingly and unconsciously tries to pursue contradictory objectives, strategies or tactics that aren’t in line with its overall mission and objectives, this can cause customers to be metaphorically served with the kind of gloopy sugary soda mess that I spoke about earlier in the article. Imagine these fictional scenarios:
A company has an objective to be “Number one for customer service” but it imposes a 3 minute call target on its call centre staff. The staff get frustrated because, whilst they want to provide great service, they get reprimanded if they spend too long speaking to customers. Customers get confused by the inconsistent experience.
A company has two market facing business units, both of which are operated and managed separately. They end up actively competing by offering similar products in the same markets, leading to a price war which drives down price (leading to more sales, but lower profit for both parts of the organisation).
An organisation gives different budgets to different ‘silo’ organisations who don’t collaborate to a shared strategy. The organisation ends up with massively duplicated systems and processes, and can’t every gain insight from its data as it is so dispersed.
In all of these examples, the organisation is ‘mixing its sodas’ too far, and an undesired outcome is likely. Clear vision, coherent communication of strategy and the ability to avoid noise and regular business analysis is key to avoiding these kind of internal contradictions.
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This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions