Navigating Critical Change: Devising a plan for when you get metaphorically punched in the face

Strategy gets a bad rap, and in many cases, it’s self-inflicted and has earned that reputation. You may have had your fingers burnt, wasted money on it, or just have perceptions of it being a misdirection of your precious resources, completely impractical or unrealistic due to the realities of a fledgling business.

‘Strategy’ needs a rebrand, a second chance, a makeover. It needs to be seen as more than an abstract plan created by an expensive consultant who doesn’t know or care enough about your business, or worse is so theoretical it doesn’t help you devise a plan at all.

Let’s remove the ‘S’ word for now, it carries too much negative baggage. What any startup, indeed any business, needs is the ability and empowerment to make a set of pragmatic choices on how best to allocate its current resources in the best way to achieve one or more agreed business aspirations. Crucially it also needs to enable you and your business to align on what you’re not going to do. All with a volatile environment of constant flux and change.

People love the Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Being a startup is high risk - that’s why not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, stepping into the boxing ring of business. But if you do, being metaphorically hit in the face is arguably unavoidable. Being hit in the face should have been in your plan. What matters is what your options are once that punch has landed. And it’s about making that choice fast before the next, inevitable, punch connects with your jaw once more.

Because growth, like boxing, is not a linear process. No chart will show a straight line heading north - there will always be dips and surges, backward steps and leaps forward – but ensuring you have an adaptable strategy and choice architecture that brings order to the chaos should offer a decent degree of protection.

Define and align your macro ambitions

The first thing to do when creating an adaptable growth strategy is to ascertain your aspirations, those of the other stakeholders and the business as a whole. Inevitably there will be some financial measures of success, growth metrics of revenue, profit, customer numbers and so on, but there is also the ‘style’ by which you want to achieve those numbers. Do you want to build a leading brand, be an amazing place to work, change the world – or all of the above?

Defining, aligning and capturing a concise articulation of these aspirations for you, any co-founders, and other key stakeholders will inform how you make all decisions moving forward towards a common reason for being. Remember, ‘strategy’ is about the questions you need to answer to allocate your resources at any time, in any situation to best meet one or more of these agreed aspirations.

From experience with hundreds of startups and scaleups, when talking about aspirations, everyone starts with the business metrics lifted from a spreadsheet. But when probed and encouraged to reveal other motives and desires related to what they want from the business and what they envision the business will be and do, it becomes not only a way to honestly express and capture their reasons for building a business, but it enables everyone to recognise the range of aspirations that become critical for how they operate and grow as a team. 

Prioritise your resources to achieve your aspirations

With your aspirations defined and aligned, you need to work out how you achieve them and how to prioritse your resources based on what’s happening inside and outside your business at any given time, while seeing what sacrifices or knock-on effects you’re making to your aspirations in the process

Referring to Lafley & Martin’s excellent Playing To Win, all businesses, especially start-ups, must map the various ‘Playing Fields’ they need to be operating within in order to achieve one or more of their aspirations, and how they ‘win’ in each of those fields.

Not every playing field will tick all your aspirations, but you can use this framework of playing fields laddering up to aspirations to make live decisions based on the real-time feedback of your business and the external factors influencing it.

Being able to acknowledge tough choices - and the effects of them - will enable more confident and timely decision-making. Within each playing field, you also work out what is required to ‘win’ against your competitors or to ‘win’ in terms of driving a desired change to move you towards one or more aspirations. 

Learn to embrace conscious inaction

There’s always anxiety in the business when you know you should be doing something but aren’t, so it’s cathartic when you can implement ‘conscious inaction’, deliberately pausing or delaying operations within a particular area as resources are allocated based on a changing business need, whether that’s to put out a fire, pivot or purely double down on short term sales in order to increase cash flow to open up other playing fields for growth.

What you’ve created now is choice architecture, which you can then use to make critical decisions, under pressure, every single day. When you’re anchored in a set of deeply important, and aligned aspirations, and have a flexible set of playfields for how to achieve them, you’ll be amazed at how well-equipped you are to overcome challenges without interrupting the flow of your day-to-day operation.

Not to say it’s an easy fight from here on in, but those inevitable tough decisions are far easier to make when you’re equipped with all the tools you need to navigate through critical change.