Interpreting Vague Strategy: The Compact Approach

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This article describes three straightforward questions for people who find themselves in a situation where they are directed to take action, but the directive is vague and ambiguous.  This article will help strategic initiative leaders gain a useful perspective and avoid predictable problems.

In the ideal world, managers formulate strategic initiatives through a thoughtful strategic planning process, but sometimes they originate from a text message or a brief encounter with executives. In my experience,

brilliant strategic initiatives sometimes originate  from a top manager’s stroke of inspiration. This inspiration needs to be matched with someone who can run with the idea.

Executive inspiration provides opportunities and energies, but sometimes are  “half-baked ideas:” a top reason for project failure according to one industry observer.

Three Questions Compose the Compact Approach

I call this management tool the Compact Approach for Strategy Implementation. You ask these three questions:

  1. What are the mistakes that I must not make?
  2. What are the mistakes that others must not make?
  3. What resources do I have to deal with the unexpected?

The first two questions recognize that people make mistakes, and it is the response to mistakes that causes trouble. Individuals will sometimes take the wrong actions, sometimes act when they shouldn’t, and sometimes lack a good sense of timing. The questions encourage the individual to look inward, reflecting on his or her experiences, strengths, and weaknesses.

This important insight of articulating what not to do is a useful practice for implementing strategic initiatives.  Too often, strategists only plan for success and they make assumptions that everything will work perfectly. Of course, people are human and they make mistakes.

Too, an individual may respond perfectly to a situation, but find that mistakes by others can undermine the whole endeavor. Action or lack of action by others has profound effects on our success. We work in systems with lots of “coupling;” these interdependencies can cause minor mistakes to cascade into catastrophe.

Two Generic Mistakes

Here are two generic answers for the first two questions about mistakes that you might make or others might make:

  • One mistake is to over-react and do more than is necessary to fulfill the request.
  • Another mistake is to under-react and do less than is necessary to fulfill the request.

The Third Question is about Contingency: Always keep some “Mad Money”

The Compact Approach’s third question encourages us to acknowledge that we cannot anticipate all mistakes and all risks. Despite the best of planning, things will not go as expected. The commonsense here is,

Always have some resources set aside for emergencies and know who you will contact should you need help.

The Source of Mistakes: When you Ass-u-me, you Make an ….

One common mistake is assuming that we know and understand the words and acronyms in use.  If you get a written directive, look closely at each word for the semantics. If you get a verbal directive, confirm it in writing.  Pay attention to semantics.

Too, don’t hesitate to validate your assumptions.  Ask questions!

Good strategic thinkers are mindfully aware of verifiable facts as well as gut reactions.

Are you “heads up” and mindful of the possibility of the unexpected?

About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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6 Responses to Interpreting Vague Strategy: The Compact Approach

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