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Short, But Not Too Short

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Two decades ago, when I was in my first real executive role, I was asked to come up with a strategy for my business unit. For the first time in my career, I was in control and could develop and set my team’s direction! I was excited to finally use some of what I had learned in my business school courses and seminars.

The team and I set to work, creating SWOTs, PESTs, Porter’s Five Forces, and other analyses. We performed assessments, identified gaps, and finally, came up with our strategies. Then we developed plans for technology, markets, people and quality, with detailed action steps written out for each one. The whole exercise filled up a very nice-looking binder that we duplicated and presented to my management team. When we were done, we all looked in awe at what we had created. Then we proceeded to put it on a shelf—where it probably still sits today—and went back to the business of firefighting the company’s day-to-day issues.

Why didn’t our plan get used? For starters, it was too long, by a factor of twenty. Did we really think we would refer back to it on an ongoing basis? Just as what happens with traditional budgeting, the vast majority of the plan was obsolete within a couple months. Creating the multi-faceted self-analysis was valuable, but it was only valid for one point in time.

After seeing few benefits from our first strategy creation process, you’d think I would have learned my lesson, but I didn’t. I went through that same exercise a couple more times in different, larger, organizations. We created more pretty binders sittingon shelves. One of the last ones was even a hoshin-style plan, withlong-term strategies tied to intermediate-term objectives that weretied to annual goals. The whole thing was just a long list of them.

And that was the problem: our desire for detail, specificity, depth, and breadth created too much complexity. At one of our quarterly reflection meetings, we realized that we weren’t even using the plans we spent so much time creating, so we decided to change direction. We reduced our long-term strategies to three, wrote down a similar number of intermediate-term objectives, and tied them to about five annual goals. That was it for a fairly large, multi-site operation. We allowed our hoshin plan to evolveand change throughout the year as situations changed, similar to how some enlightened companies have dispensed with the annual budgeting process to use rolling and ongoing financial decisionmaking. We mapped all existing activities against that plan, and eliminated or delayed projects that weren’t aligned. Once we simplified things, we began to achieve real forward progress. It was amazing how much time we freed up by getting rid of supposedly worthy projects that were not aligned with our strategy.

When I go into organizations as a consultant or simply as a visitor, I often see similar binders on the shelves, almost always gathering dust. I counsel the executives to create another plan, but this time, dramatically reduce its length and create an ongoing hansei (reflection) process. It seems to work much better.

Brevity is better when it comes to strategy. In 2014, Nick Tasler wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled It’s Time to Put Your Strategy on a Diet, where he draws several parallels between strategic planning, eating, and dieting. In the article, Tasler writes that you should “limit your plate size” by reducing your number of priorities. Next, he advises readers to “let them eat cake…tomorrow” by putting off (but not forgetting about) great ideas that don’t align with the current strategy. Then, he encourages us to avoid the “what-the-hell” effect (allowing one small deviation from the diet to lead to many others) through strict adherence to the strategy. Finally, Tasler writes, you should surround yourself with healthy eaters (others who understand the importance of limiting your projects and priorities) who are also skilled at leading.

While being concise is best, it is possible to take the idea too far. In The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement (also in HBR) Alessandro Di Fiore may take the concept of strategy brevity a little too much to the extreme when he suggests that only 15 words are necessary. Di Fiore’s idea, although it could be a good exercise as part of the strategy development process, can lead you to create strategies so narrow that they are constraining, making them likely to end up forgotten on a wall in the corner of a conference room, next to the shelf holding a thick binder labeled Strategic Plan.

As you look up from reading this and notice your own binder on a shelf, think about taking another stab at it. Narrow it down. Be concise. What are the three or four long-term strategies that your organization needs to be focused on? What three or four measurable objectives must happen in the intermediate three- to five-year time frame for that to happen? What four or five projects must be accomplished this year to enable that? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is your organization working on right now that doesn’t align with that plan? Stop doing it. Formally reflect on your strategic plan at least once a quarter with your team. Be prepared to adjust and evolve—don’t just set it in stone once a year.