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Emergencies Aren’t Strategy

In a previous article I talked about how there are two reasons for strategy: focus and communication. It seems like companies have a lot of trouble with focus. Particularly in large companies, there’s a tendency to “focus” on everything at once: accomplishing all of your objectives, expanding in all of your markets, increasing revenues in all product lines at the same time that you’re cutting costs in all departments. And of course this defeats the entire idea of focus, which is to concentrate your resources on the few things that are the most important. If everything is important, then nothing is really important.

Some companies and governments have attempted to get around their lack of focus by using emergencies. They declare a certain situation as an emergency, and then go into some sort of lock-down to concentrate all of their labor and money on solving the emergency. This can be successful but it’s self-defeating. It leads to employee burnout, it’s seldom cost-effective, it typically goes after symptoms instead of the underlying core problem, and it has a short-term focus with no support for long-term solutions.

Companies get into trouble when they replace their strategy process with a series of emergencies, jumping from emergency to emergency without ever putting things into perspective. This is everything that strategy shouldn’t be: impromptu, short-lived, wasteful, pushy, and stressful.

A state of emergency should be reserved for those situations when an unexpected event catches you by surprise, or when things you anticipated as possible but improbable suddenly become certain. But probable things shouldn’t be handled as emergencies — they should be handled as part of normal strategy.

If you can’t use your strategy to focus your resources, then you don’t have a strategy — you have a wish list. A wish list isn’t a bad place to start when you put together your strategy, but it’s not the end point. You still have to prioritize the objectives on your wish list, eliminate or defer all but the most important items, and then determine the specific ways you are going to accomplish the remaining important objectives. Then when you assign your resources to those remaining objectives, your strategy will be complete, at least for the moment. You still have to periodically review your strategy, of course. And you have to adjust it to take changing conditions into account. But it’s still the way that you focus your resources at any point in time, and it’s the way that you communicate what’s important to the people with whom you work.

Don’t use emergencies as a substitute for strategy. Do the strategy correctly from the start, and you’ll have far fewer emergencies.

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