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Want to steer your company into clear waters? All hands on deck.

October 6, 2008

One summer, back in my university days, I joined a sailing club. The club’s boathouse was a modest little outfit perched at the bottom of a cliff along the lower Ottawa River, in the capital itself. Every so often, when the conditions were just right, I’d head down to the docks with my friends Grant or Roger and we’d sail off into the sunset with Parliament Hill as our backdrop.

Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Well, I suppose it would be if you were just a passenger. But sailing is hard work. First you’ve got to rig the boat. To do so, you’ve got to know how each piece fits and how to tie all the knots. Second, and more importantly, you’ve got to know how to read the wind. And once you’ve finally cast sail, you’re constantly watching what’s around you: the current, the waves, the wind and the shore.

You might think, if it’s so much work – why bother at all? Well, it’s kind of like asking a pilot why he or she flies planes. There’s nothing like the thrill of soaring through the skies or riding the waves. It’s a rush…even on the Ottawa River! And once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun.

A metaphor for management

But what does sailing have to do with leadership or management or even process? Lots, actually. Sailing is the perfect metaphor to illustrate a concept developed by Michael E. Raynor called the ‘Strategy Paradox’. According to Raynor, “It is precisely the same behaviors that maximize an organization’s possibility of great success, also maximize its likelihood of total catastrophe.”

He explains that the strategy paradox, “arises from the collision of commitment and uncertainty. The most successful strategies are those based on commitments made today that are best aligned with tomorrow’s circumstances. But no one knows what those circumstances will be, because the future is unpredictable.”

To navigate through this uncertainty, managers must balance their commitment to existing customers with an anticipation of what lies ahead. In other words, the same way skippers must read their environment and at the same time ensure the boat keeps on course, senior executives should be responsible for imagining what might happen ahead, and let the ‘crew’ continue meeting customer demands.

Exploring the concept

After working with countless companies, Raynor found that of the myriad strategies one could choose, no one option ever seemed to be consistently right or wrong. So, he began to ask why?

What he discovered is that strategies often fail because leaders of an organization get overwhelmed with the intricacies of their business. For instance, they get bogged down in a product that is defective, or start dealing with too many consumer complaints. When this happens, they become myopic about the rest of the environment and fail to anticipate what’s coming ahead.

A broken process inevitably leads them to pursue what would be logical strategies. For example, a company might adopt a “back to basics” approach to redefine their core businesses. Or, it might retreat from aggressive acquisitions. Others might change the product, the promise, and the management. Still others choose to share the burden by combining strengths with another company to leverage one another company’s expertise.

Innovative thinking is at the heart of good strategy

While these may all be good strategies, they don’t really address the root cause of the problem – why they found themselves pursuing the wrong strategy in the first place. Part of it, as Raynor suggests, is because management has not kept their eye on the horizon. But the other part is that frequently managers get dragged into the minutiae of a problem, because the entire process is broken and disconnected. They’re under extreme pressure to ‘fix things fast’, so they jump in, thinking they have the best solution. Invevitably, they find themselves back at square one.

What Raynor is getting at, is what many other management experts – including Tatham – have expressed: having a formula for anticipating change does not necessarily guarantee one will come up with an amazingly innovative and breakthrough strategy. To develop sound strategies – companies must “have the right processes in place so that they can apply the current commitments, while constantly looking for ways to innovate”. At The Tatham Group, we believe that Innovative strategy comes from innovative thinking. And innovative thinking is possible when we learn a new way of problem-solving. The question is not then, whether a company must adopt a new approach, but how?

For this, we turn to Alan Deutschman’s three keys to change: relating new hope, repeating new skills and reframing into a new way of thinking. By relating a new hope and creating a new vision for where we want our company to go, by repeating the new skills we have learned to get there, and by changing the way to think – we are able to come up with far more innovative strategic options. Having several strategic options, is – in of itself strategic – as it allows us to recover even if we make the wrong choice.  So the next time we set sail for a destination, it’s important to chart a course knowing there will be many surprises ahead, but with the confidence in our crew that they will know how to navigate.