It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day details of running a business. There’s always a pressing need for your attention. From dealing with customer concerns to making sure new products get out the door, what needs to be done “now” can easily derail your business vision.
If you live in the moment, it’s not unusual to wake up at some point in time and ask, “What happened?” Where did the year (or quarter, or month) go? Moving from crisis to crisis may seem to keep your business afloat, but it certainly won’t get you ahead.
Becoming too focused on immediate operational concerns means setting aside strategic goals. The results can be disastrous to the health of your business. Think about the impact of more innovative companies on those that were standing still: Facebook vs. MySpace. The Apple iPod vs. the Sony Walkman.
You simply can’t afford to lose sight of your long-term objectives if you want to be successful for the long haul. But how can you balance today and tomorrow, keeping an eye on where you want to be while delivering on your current promises?
The annual strategic planning retreat is one answer. However, we all know what happens the week after when the excitement wears off and the daily beast roars its head. The best-laid plans end up on the shelf and we go back to doing what we’ve always done.
Beyond the Smoke
You need a better way.
In medieval times, every castle had a lookout, someone responsible for watching the environment to see what was coming down the road. Your business needs a lookout, too.
In the modern world, this translates to a system of observations, consistent methods for listening to the market, hearing customer needs, and sensing trends that will impact your business.
Technology provides a wealth of tools to make this possible, from social listening platforms that let you tune in to the online grapevine to CRM systems for monitoring customer interactions.
Data is everywhere.
If you’re too busy to analyze it yourself, there are plenty of resources that can help. Industry analysts and associations will keep you abreast of market changes and competitive activities. Even your own sales team and customer service representatives can provide invaluable information about shifts in the business climate.
Use these resources to channel actionable information to your door so even when you’re in the midst of fighting fires, you can see beyond the smoke.
Stay the Course
Strategic planning is not an annual event. It’s a process of navigation: plotting a course, checking your progress and adjusting as needed to get you to your destination. Success is not a straight line. You need to actively account for changing conditions, like wind, weather, and currents using all the data at your disposal.
Business is a lot like sailing and any good sailor will tell you that you can’t leave the helm unattended. Even autopilot is a poor substitute for active eyes on the sea ahead. If you’re too worried about fixing the broken latch on a cabinet, you’ll miss the sandbar up ahead. As a leader, you must balance trouble-shooting with a commitment to your long-term objectives.
At sea or in business, attention is critical.
Of course, the immediate issues will always need to be addressed, but this should be done in the service of your larger goals. To keep your focus on the long-term, translate your strategic plan into incremental milestones that will let you know you’re on the right track, like mile markers on the highway or channel markers on the water.
Integrate your strategic objectives into daily operations and establish regular checkpoints to be sure you’re staying true to the plan. Engage everyone in your organization to help keep your business on course, gathering useful information and sharing it in a way that can be acted on quickly when necessary.
Provide feedback to your lookouts so they can improve the quality of the information you receive, and continue to fine tune your course throughout the year.
Then when the annual planning retreat rolls around again, you’ll be in a strong position to build on successes and keep your business moving forward.