Can Your Strategy Take a Punch?

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face," eminent philosopher and pugilist Mike Tyson once said.

And every organization's strategy is set in stone -- until it's not.

Disruption is today's new normal. And dealing with it now requires, more than any time in history, the need to build critical flexibility into your strategic planning. Which begs the question: How can an organization even contemplate a five-year strategic plan, let alone execute one?

Of course, it is impossible to build a strategy that anticipates every conceivable kind of change, disruption, or crisis given that they come at us today from so many different directions: political, technological, natural, financial, marketplace, medical, terrorism, et al. What is possible, however, is to build the capacity to deal with disruption once it occurs. It's learning how to roll with the punches. And keep on fighting.

Leading strategist and author Rosabeth Moss Canter speaks to the "deal with it" capability with four suggested strategies to speed response and minimize the impact of disruptions:

• Backup. Leaders should know the benefits of alternatives. Even if Plan B cannot always be rehearsed and ready to go, mental flexibility can prevent specifications and expectations from becoming rigid barriers to rapid redirection. Great innovators often pursue parallel development paths. Great companies stress efficiency but build in slack and cross-train their people. Although the economy-stimulated tendency during a recession is to run tight, some overlap and redundancy makes it easier to respond quickly.

• Communication. Information must flow quickly and spread virally, whether through social media, email chains, Twitter alerts, or buddy systems. Social networks for which people feel responsible can align action quickly. Collecting and disseminating data in short cycles also increases the ability to turn fast.

• Collaboration. Human relationships, commitment, and resiliency help organizations recover quickly. When people care about one another, have common goals, and feel empowered to act, they can master volatility and maintain high performance. In a major power outage that closed airports throughout the American Northeast in 2003 (until volcanic ash, the second worst disaster to hit airlines since the terrorist attacks of 2001), Continental Airlines (now United) employees were dedicated to their goal of on-time arrivals and their empowerment to do nearly anything except risk safety to achieve it. They developed numerous creative solutions to keep their planes flying while their competitors cancelled hundreds of flights.

• Values and Principles. Clear standards and values can serve as a guidance system to steer decisions without sluggish bureaucracy. People know the right thing to do without being told and without waiting for permission. P&G was the first organization to evacuate employees (and their families) from Lebanon after military action; the regional general manager was certain that the costs would be supported, because of P&G's values.

It comes down to absorbing the punch, then living to fight another day.


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