Mar 15, 2016

Strategy Without a Map

The Sahara is the largest tropical desert on earth. It spans over 3,000 miles, and covers a space approximately the size of the United States. And it’s constantly changing.

Steve Donahue writes in the Shifting Sands, “On a map, the mountain peaks have names but individual sand dunes don’t. If you named a dune, the map would be out of date before the ink was dry.”

The dunes are constantly shifting and changing, and this means you don’t use a map to cross the Sahara. You use a compass, landmarks, and local resources to navigate the terrain to get to your destination.

This is an excellent metaphor for growing your business. In a changing marketplace you don’t have a map to guide you to success.

Baby Boomers Climbed Mountains

Business wasn’t easier in the eighties and nineties. It was different.

The playing field was different. The economics were different. Customer needs were different. The factors for success were different.

Boomers weren’t crossing the Sahara to grow their companies. They were climbing mountains.

Mountain climbers have the advantage of seeing their goal, the peak. They know where they’re going, and they have a pretty good idea of how to get there. And if they’re lucky, other climbers may have already mapped the route.

Growing a business in previous generations was more linear and static. This meant the strategic planning process was more stable and akin to following a map.

Abandon the Maps

A key problem we face today is we’re burdened by yesterday’s maps. Businesses have transitioned from climbing mountains to crossing deserts.

For example, Benedict Evans tweeted a fascinating stat on the growth of the smartphone market over the next 4 years.

2020 Smartphone Growth

What happens when you double the number of smartphones on the planet? This is an excellent example of a shifting dune in business.

As Fred Wilson points out, “The first 2.5bn smartphones brought us Instagram, Snapchat, Uber, Whatsapp, Kik, Venmo, Duolingo, and most importantly, drove the big web apps to build world class mobile apps and move their user bases from web to mobile.” The next 2.5 billion smartphones will be deployed to people in the developing world, and give them access to information and resources they’ve never had before.

The deployment of smartphones on a global scale will be transformative. And there’s no map to tell you how to respond to this shift. You can’t even predict what it will do to your business or your customers in 2020. It’s a shifting dune, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Look for Constants

When you navigate without a map, look for constants.

What do your customers want? Low price, convenience, options, advice? You can develop a strong vision for your brand when you understand the constants for your customers.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon summed this up well. Speaking at an Amazon Web Services conference, he was asked what he thought would change over the next 10 years.

Bezos replied, “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two, because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

Amazon uses price, selection, and fast delivery to drive its strategy. Bezos continues, “In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. … When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Start Each Day With a Plan

The goal is cloudy. You can’t see the destination, or how you’re going to get there. But that shouldn’t stop you.

Business strategy is ever changing. It’s the nature of technology and our marketplace. You can’t predict what will happen next, but you can keep moving forward.

  1. Focus on the constants. What do you know is true today, and what will be true tomorrow?
  2. Get comfortable with ambiguity. You aren’t in control.

Start each day with a plan. Some days you will make a lot of progress, and other times you’ll face setbacks. But that’s all to be expected when your business is crossing the Sahara.

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