Ogres are like onions and strategy…they have layers. I kind of felt like Shrek out of the gate in this post but just like the actual Shrek there’s a happy ending here.
Most of the time, when someone says strategy in the context of growing a business they’re referring to the individual actions that you can employ to try to achieve a specific outcome. In this post, I want to argue that you should worry less about strategy (because people use strategy wrong making it sounds more impressive than it actually is) as most people use it and start focusing on making decisions. Stop worrying about chasing the next success strategy and get real about what you stand for, who you want to serve and how you’re going to face the tough decisions that come with getting to real growth. Also, the work. The lots of real work it takes to affect change.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when consultants or coaches try to guide you through a process they’ve gleaned from multiple sources without any real testing or data to back up their “teachings”. Well, second to someone just waking up one day having never actually built a business, or contributed significantly to the building of a business, calling themselves a “business strategist”. But really, how can you reasonably expect to guide someone through a process that you’ve probably never been through?! Blows my mind. Borderline triggering myself here just typing these words.
They do it all under the label, and for the glory of, strategy. In reality, strategy is not a prescribed set of actions. It’s not some magic formula that will instantly take you from where you are now to where you want to be. It’s also not tips, tricks, resources, hacks, blueprints, playbooks or any other generic term internet marketers get you to try to believe.
Why is it not ANY of those things?
Because you can’t control how people are going to react to the choices you make. When it comes to growing a business you try something you think might work based on your deepening understanding of the value you bring and the of the people that you serve. Then you wait to see if, when and how they engage with you. All along the way questioning the assumptions you made earlier. Then you make a small change and try again. Over and over, each time getting closer to the promise your business’s mission makes. Strategy, then, is more like the lens you see the activities of the business through. It’s the thoughts, guidelines, and criteria by which you make decisions as they support why you started it in the first place.
Oh, and it also requires real work. Lots of it. Lot’s of conversations, unread blog posts you’ve written, unwatched videos you’ve created and unopened emails you’ve sent. It takes a ton of effort to get someone’s attention and then hold it long enough to convince them that your solution is worth a shot.
The same goes for strategic planning which, in reality, is little more than business-tourism for the parties involved in the process. Managers, owners and executives just show up, take in the sights of the business, offer up some well-wishes and then the process just ends. This includes businesses of one! Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention that Havard Business studies have shown that 90% of businesses think that planning isn’t even worth the effort in the first place. Why would anyone allocate real time, payroll dollars, bandwidth on a static process that doesn’t get referred to more than once or twice a year?!
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Wow, this guy is salty and if he’s so smart how am I supposed to grow my business if I should not pay attention to everyone on the internet offering me strategies to grow?”
Great question hypothetical business owner! Here’s what I’d offer instead. Let’s change the mindset from chasing the next strategy to standing up for your values and being deliberate about what you’re choosing to do (and not do).
I want to empower you to make decisions in your businesses thematically. Your business has seasons, they may not follow the calendar seasons but over time your business will grow and contract. Knowing that, the actions you choose to take, the tools you decide to use (from email to project management) and ways you choose to show up to your community get screened through a few layers.
Layer 1: The first layer is that what you’re deciding is in direct service of your target market.
If you’re posting on social or starting your email list on a sequence that is designed to just point them to something of yours to buy you’ll fail in the long term.
Layer 2: What’s the temperature of my business right now?
This second layer has to with what you’re asking for. If you’re business is on fire right now and you’re struggling to keep up with the orders or clients coming in then you should be deliberate about the content coming out of your business. There’s nothing worse than creating demand for something only to tell people that it won’t be available when they get to your checkout page. Only a few places can pull that off like Kickstarter and Amazon...but even with Amazon people get impatient if something is going to take longer than 2-day Prime shipping people start looking for substitutes.
Layer 3: Is this going to help me deliver value more efficiently or so uniquely that it will be hard for someone else to copy?
Real talk, I’m hoping shining a light on strategy like I am in this post helps differentiate me from the buckets of yuck that are “business strategists” that you find online. My hope is that my perspective demonstrates enough mastery, authority and credibility that it makes it easy for you to come back and see the next post that goes here. It’s an example of me showing you and not just paying lip service...hopefully.
Layer 4: Instead of just focusing on growth for growth’s sake is this next decision going to help me focus on the factors that I believe will drive the most sustainable growth for me?
Different demographics, psychographics, etc. all have different wants, needs and pain points. It’s really ineffective to try to reach everyone with one message all the time. Instead is the next choice I’m making supporting one of the individual factors that will help me better establish myself to the people I hope to serve.
Layer 5: Will this next decision support at least one of my biggest priorities right now?
Not all priorities are created equal and the same goes for entries on a to-do list. When you’re a business of one, part of a team or are running the team time is one of your most important resources. Remember, businesses ebb and flow in seasons so when you decide to give something attention make sure that it passes through the previous layers and that it’s desired outcome is one that will really move the needle for you.
Layer 6: Do I have enough facts, alternatives, and choices to make this decision?
I know, I know…. We never have enough information to make a decision. The challenge is that real life is messy and information is asymmetrical. No matter how hard you try you’ll never really know what’s going on in someone else’s brain. And, that’s ok! This is where you get to have a little fun and treat the decision like a hypothesis that you get to test. If you’re playing the long game then you should feel safe in knowing that there’s time to adjust and try again. Falling into a decision-paralysis situation is always going to cost you more time, money, and stress over the alternative of just trying something when you feel like you just barely have enough information. Because the reality is that you’ve already probably over thought it; again, not a bad thing.
Whether you’re trying something new, building on what you do well, or even just reacting opportunistically to some new possibility using these layers will help keep your decision making aligned with what you really believe in. It’s far to easy to be distracted by new concepts, tools, or blueprints that promise to help you shortcut your way to success. The reality is that you’re building your business around what’s important to you and the people you’ve committed to serving. That means that you have to be the author of your success. Even with the most fun of statistical modeling techniques, you can’t plan your way through making decisions in situations that haven’t happened yet. Not only that, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to think of all the permutations and combinations of things that may come to pass in your coming days, weeks, months, quarters, etc.
What you can control is the process by which you make decisions. I like thinking in layers because it’s one less formal thing I have to memorize and with enough reps, it becomes the lens by which I see the things I have to do in my business. Kind of sounds like a strategy for approaching how you decide to do the work in your business…
See what I did there.