The best strategy comes from walking forward into the present

In an improvisation workshop I was taking, the instructor explained that “good improv is like walking backwards into the future. You’re constantly on the lookout for the things around you – the things that you and your fellow improvisors have created – that you can pick up and place behind you to see where they might take you.” That imagery really resonated with me and is helping to make me a better improvisor.

It also struck me how similar it is to the way many businesses approach strategy. This approach is all very useful thinking for improv but can be extremely dangerous for business strategy. Because improvising your strategy is the surest way to trip over the things that you don’t see and fall on your arse.

Often when we do strategic thinking, we start with our history – the circumstances and outcomes that bring us to our current situation. We identify the things that we aren’t doing well (limitations and weaknesses) and make it our strategic aim to place an improved version in our future. We highlight what is working well and try to do more of it – grow our market share or expand into new markets. We look around us at current trends, what customers want today and our known competitors for clues about where the future will take us.

You want to flip the improvisor’s mindset on its head. Instead of walking backwards into the future, project yourself into the future and then walk forward into the present.

Today, the business world is changing in ways that are bigger and bolder than ever before. That means you need to go beyond strategic improvisation because it limits your thinking to what we’ve always done. It doesn’t open your mind to new possibilities – to solving your client’s ever-evolving problems in bold and unique ways. For your business is to remain relevant and create a thriving future, you need to explore bigger possibilities and make bolder choices about what your business might look like in 3-, 5- or 10-years’ time.

Don’t improvise a vision of your future – create one

This starts by creating an aspiration for your business 5 to 10 years into the future – a vision of your business’s future. The vision for the future I’m talking about isn’t a ‘vision statement’ – one of those bland wordsmithing exercises that tries to encapsulates all that you hope to be in a single sentence yet doesn’t say anything to anybody. It’s not a plan for the sort of future results that you hope to be achieving. Instead, it’s what looks like in your ‘mind’s eye’ to stand in that future and observe your business:

  • Who your customers are
  • The value that you’ll be delivering to those customers – the sort of problems you’ll be solving for them
  • What your workplace looks like and how your people will be interacting
  • What sort of relationships you’ll have built in your ecosystem
  • The challenges you’ve overcome to get there

You want to do by suspending disbelief and removing the constraints that get imposed by your history and what it currently so. Or, worse yet, being constrained by what the current paradigm tells you can’t be so.

You want to create this vision knowing that it will probably be wrong. You want to accept that there will be bits missing – bones without any flesh on them. Because, let’s face it, in this day and age nobody is good enough to accurately predict what their business will look like in five to 10 years’ time. But placing yourself in that future – having a vision for the future of your business – gives you long-term direction for the strategic journey. It creates purpose and meaning for your strategic activities that your people can relate to – that they can ‘see’.

‘If only we knew in the present what we know in the future’

A vision of your future aspirations also creates a perspective from which to establish mid-term strategic goals. You can walk forward toward your present by saying, “Okay, if this is who we are five to 10 years in the future…and that was who we were back in the present…what were the important shifts we made in the first three years that allowed us to realise our aspirations?”

You can use the answers to that question to set out your one- to three-year strategic objectives. To create the strategic stepping stones on the way toward your long-term aspirations for the future. Once again, not the increases to revenue or profitability numbers, but the changes that happened within your business environment – how you work, what you make and the relationships that you’ve built.

Next, you can move toward your present once again and explore the pathway to those objectives by asking, “If these major shifts have positioned us for our best possible future, how did we make them? What improvements have we made and what opportunities have we pursued to move us from the present to our mid-term goals?”

You can use the answers to those questions as the basis for identifying your strategic development opportunities. You can explore the organisational qualities that were created, improved, or amplified. You can assess those strategic shifts from the operational, products and services and customer experience perspectives.

Bringing the future back into the present

The final leg of your journey back toward the present is to ask, “If these strategic development opportunities were the path that made us the business that we hoped to be, then where did we begin? What did we do first and what were the most important first steps?”

It’s in the answers to these questions that you will determine the activities – the ‘projects’ – that will set your business on the strategic path toward its best possible future. It will allow you to pursue the projects that will make the most valuable contribution to your strategic goals.

It will also allow you to engage your people in the strategic conversation in a meaningful way. Because you’re asking them to engage in a journey not just produce a result. The work that you ask them to undertake today is connected to a future that is tangible – a purpose that has meaning.

Getting comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty

The strategic journey is an uncomfortable one. You’re making decisions about the best steps to take now based on an aspiration for the future of your business – all the while accepting that view of the future is probably wrong. The uncertain nature of the future means that aspiration is more like an apparition on a distant hill – ethereal, constantly gaining and losing its shape.

It’s no wonder that most businesses revert to the relative certainty of the present they know and the history they can justify when walking into their future. It can feel so much more comfortable to improvise when things deviate from the known – from the plan.

However, having a bold aspiration for the future will create direction and purpose for the strategic activities you undertake in the present. It will allow you to establish a hypothesis about the future that you can test through execution and experimentation. The greater clarity that comes from purposeful action will create learnings that allow you to evolve that vision of the future…before you, once more, walk forward into your present.

Is you future built on a vision or desired results? Is your future based on where you want to go or where you’ve been? Have you connected that future with the strategic activities in your present? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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