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Strategic Planning Analogy #547: Tasks or Goals

Earlier this week, I was working out at my exercise club. They have a sign at the club asking everyone to wipe down the exercise machines after using them. To aid in the task, they have a table with wipe-down cloths and bottles of disinfectant spray.

A young gal was using a Machine next to mine. When she finished using it, she took a cloth and just barely touched it to the machine. So I guess, technically, she “wiped the machine when finished.”

But she missed the point. The Purpose of putting the sign and the cloths in the club was not to see if people would wipe, but to help prevent the spread of germs in the club. She accomplished the task, but completely missed the goal.

So, before using the machine after her, I gave it a more thorough wipe-down.

There is usually a purpose behind what we do. Depending on our purpose, we will do act differently. If your purpose for wiping down an exercise machine is just to say you did the task, then you will do a quick, half-hearted effort (like that girl). If your purpose for wiping down the exercise equipment is to prevent the spread of germs, then you will do a more thorough wipe-down (like me).

This applies to all the actions in our life. We can either be task-oriented in our purpose (I wiped down the machine) or goal-oriented in our purpose (I prevented the spread of disease).

For example, children may be told they have to brush their teeth, so they barely touch the brush to their teeth—just enough so they can tell their parent they did the task (the task oriented approach). They missed the goal of brushing one’s teeth—to prevent cavities and tooth decay. Had they been pursuing the goal, the brushing would have been more thorough.

Unfortunately, I see this same dichotomy in the business world. Some people Approach Strategic Planning with a task-orientation—they see it as a series of tasks that have to get done. Other business people approach strategic planning with a goal-orientation—a desire to move a business to a more desirable position in the marketplace.

As one would expect, these two orientations tend to lead to different behaviors and outcomes. The task-oriented approach to Strategy may result in pretty PowerPoint decks, but little more. Unless one has the larger goal in mind while doing strategy (i.e., business transformation), it will probably never happen.

We need to go beyond just “touching” our business machine with a strategy “cloth” to really wiping it down so that we can keep the company healthy and strong.

The principle here is that unless you focus on the goal when doing the task, doing the task won’t get you to the goal. That sounds simple enough, but it can be so easy to get off track.

For example, there are a lot of tasks associated with strategic planning. Some of these include:

  1. Environmental Analysis
  2. Internal Analysis
  3. Competitive Analysis
  4. Business Missions/Visions
  5. Goal-setting
  6. Opportunity Screening
  7. Creating long term financial statements
  8. Determining KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)
  9. Creating Action Plans
  10. Communicating the Strategy to the Organization

None of these tasks are bad per se, if you are using them to proactively transform the company. But if they are only seen as a list of unrelated tasks that need to get done, then you will have an organization full of people like that girl I saw at the Exercise club. They will put in the minimal effort to say the task got done and miss the entire reason for doing the task in the first place.

There is no magic to just doing a few strategy tasks. You won’t suddenly have a transformed company just because you “got a few strategy tasks done.” It’s no different than at the Exercise Club. There is no magic to touching an exercise machine and suddenly having it disinfected. The tasks are merely tools to help people think and act more strategically. If the strategic thinking and acting doesn’t accompany the tasks, then you are wasting your time.

1. Focusing on the Goal During Set-Up
Therefore, when it is time to undertake a new planning cycle, make sure everyone is focused on the goal rather than the tasks. This includes both the professional strategists and the rest of the company.

It’s easy for a professional strategist to get caught up in task-orientation on strategy. After all, strategy is their job…it’s what they get paid for, right? The strategy tasks are listed in their job description. So to do their job, they have to do the tasks, right? If they don’t do the tasks well they will get a bad annual review.

That’s ineffective thinking. It leads to perfecting the activity rather than improving the company. The real role of a strategist is to be a catalyst in moving the company to a better position. All those tasks are merely tools to help make it happen.

Here’s my way of looking at all those tasks. I ask myself, “How thorough and complete do all those tasks need to get done?” My answer, “Only to the point where we know where to direct the company and how to get there. Anything beyond that is a waste of time.”

So instill in your planning staff the notion that their primary job is to improve the company, not perfect the tasks of strategy.

This also applies to the rest of the company which participates in the planning cycle. Since running the strategy cycle is not part of their job description, it is easy for them to write it off as just a silly task they have to do which gets in the way of their “real” job.

And you know what? If all they do is halfheartedly participate in the task like that girl at the club, they’re right. It’s a silly waste of time.

You need them to see that the activities are a step to transforming the company. And that can have a big impact on their “real” job. In fact, if the strategy is done wrong, the company may suffer to the point that they no longer have a job. And if the strategy is done right, greater job opportunities may present themselves.

By personalizing it in this way, participation will go up and the company will be better off.

2. Focusing on the Goal During Hand-Off
The second place where goal-orientation is important is at the point of hand-off—when the strategy development ends and the strategy implementation begins.

If the implementation tasks are seen as just a bunch of committees or task forces assigned to do something, then those groups may do the something they were tasked to do. However, it probably won’t transform the company. After the committees and task forces are disbanded, the status quo will tend to return. No major transformation will have occurred, because nobody was really trying to transform. They were just trying to get the assignment done so they could go back to their “real” job.

Therefore, we need to help these committees and task forces see that their real role is to transform the company. Their real task isn’t completed until the transformation takes root. Stopping before that is not an option.

And we need to empower these groups so that they have the ability to fight the forces trying to maintain the status quo. Without power, the tasks lose their ability to transform.

Strategists can help with the hand-off in two ways. First, they can help set up the hand-off so those participating in implementation understand the greater goal and are empowered to make it happen. Second, strategists can act as watchdogs to ensure that these groups stay on track and continue through to the completion of the goal.

Strategy isn’t to be done just because it involves tasks that are interesting tasks to do. It is to be done in order to find a better direction for the company and a way to make this transformation come to life. If this larger purpose is not consistently put in the forefront of the minds of those working on the process, the process can denigrate into just doing a bunch of unrelated tasks. Then they become worthless, even if well done, because they did not lead to company transformation. Focus on the goal, not the task.

They should change the wording on the sign at the exercise club. Instead of asking people to “wipe down the equipment” (a task) they should ask people to “leave the machine in a sanitary condition for the next user” (a goal).

This post first appeared on Planninga From Nanninga: A Strategic Planning, please read the originial post: here

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Strategic Planning Analogy #547: Tasks or Goals


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