Uncover the Assumptions that Stall Business Growth

Pamela Harper

In today's fast-moving and highly-charged economy, business leaders in virtually every industry are under increasing pressure to advance their business strategies in shorter and shorter timeframes. While the quest for speed of execution has the potential to provide quicker results and increased profits, it also makes companies of all sizes susceptible to what I call "Strategic Gridlock," the mysterious paralysis that occurs when persistent organizational problems snarl business performance.

Despite their best intentions, even the savviest business leaders often find that the risk of driving their company into strategic gridlock is greater than ever before. Massive advances in technology, communication, globalization, business climate, and social change all add up to a dizzying mix of conditions that can make it difficult for executives to know whether they're moving backward, forward, or sideways. Additionally, such rapidly changing circumstances and increasing complexity of what defines and impacts organizations can have unexpected consequences during a strategy's execution.

In their drive to move from problems to solutions and from opportunities to return on investment, business leaders worldwide make assumptions about the source of problems, about the suitability of an opportunity, and about how well their organization should be able to implement the resulting strategies and initiatives. Unfortunately, assumptions about the organization's current reality are not always reliable, and it's often hard to know just what "truth" is anymore – especially in uncertain times such as these.

While ignoring such factors or making assumptions about them won't cripple your organization immediately, the issues usually grow incrementally, making the gridlock difficult to detect until actual performance grinds to a halt. The creep toward strategic gridlock is also hard to catch because many business leaders view problems such as unexpected changes with customers, low product sales, and acquisition integration difficulties as isolated executional issues. However, by looking at patterns of events, it's frequently possible to trace these problems back to common themes.

Some Assumptions that Hold Us Back

A leader's mistaken assumptions about the organizational reality and/or strategy show up long before the visible signs of strategic gridlock and have distinct patterns. We can group many of these assumptions into categories of "hidden roadblocks." While there are numerous assumptions that leaders make daily, below are the four most common. When you address these roadblocks early in your thinking and planning phase, you have a greater chance of transforming your strategy into high performance results.

1. "One-Size-Fits-All": When leaders take strategies and initiatives that were successful in their past experience or in another organization and force fit them to their current organization, they are guilty of One-Size-Fits-All thinking. As a result of the poor strategy-to-company fit, the company's problems multiply. While at one time or another we all succumb to the lure of "tried and true" approaches in order to quickly respond to what seem like familiar patterns and circumstances, in uncertain times, this style of decision making frequently has unintended outcomes when executives overlook or underestimate pieces of their organizational reality.

Before you implement any strategy into your company, be sure to consider whether it can work in your organization as it is today. As the business environment continues to change, the unique organizational reality that enabled you to be successful may change right out from under you. Understanding why something worked in the past or for another company is essential to making any recycled strategy successful.

2. "Management by Lobotomy":
Often, when things aren't going right in a company, a favorite solution is to reorganize and/or cut positions. In fact, wholesale sacking is a frequent recourse many business leaders use to both banish apparent "problem employees" and to streamline the company. While it seems logical that "changing brains" for positions should bring new ideas and results, or that cutting jobs should lead to a leaner, more efficient organization, this assumption often steers the company towards gridlock.

It's important to remember that organizational surgery alone seldom provides more than temporary relief from problems. In fact, this solution comes with its own set of challenges, ranging from lower productivity to managing outsourced relationships. Therefore, especially when you do need to make cuts, be sure to first take a fresh look at your organization's reality in relationship to the business challenge you now face. Based upon these insights, what else could you be doing to build sustainable top and bottom line growth? This question can lead you to new insights and help you generate new options for moving forward.

3. "Act Now Think Later": Sometimes, a leader's hunger for results combined with habits of thought can lead to planning and launching strategies and initiatives that aren't actually addressing the organization's real needs. When business leaders become overeager to seize opportunities without understanding all the implications, they are falling victim to Act Now Think Later thinking. Contrary to popular belief, such a scenario doesn't just happen to young entrepreneurs; a strong desire for action can take in even seasoned executives. The consequences of this tendency often take them down the road to strategic gridlock.

While many companies incorporate a wide range of quantitative data into their strategic thinking and planning, such as market and competitive analyses, financials, and even some qualitative elements, it's important to add a further level of assumption testing into your thinking for less apparent and less quantitative facets of your organization's reality before you commit to action. This can increase your ability to determine whether proposed plans address the issues that are really behind the problems you see or if they could have a negative impact on the opportunity you want to pursue. Even when you have to move rapidly to address issues on the fly, you can challenge your assumptions during strategic thinking to help your organization get going in the right direction.

4. "Magic of the Marquee": Too often, executives make the mistake of planning elaborate strategies and initiatives that hinge on the organization's ability to instantly make major changes. Whether it's a merger, acquisition, alliance, quality program, or reorganization, the pattern is the same. The announcement about the new and improved organization goes up, and productivity and profitability mysteriously stay the same or, worse yet, they plummet. Their mistaken belief that employees and other stakeholder groups (such as alliance partners and outsource providers) will instantly support the strategy and move it forward results in a stalled organization mired in gridlock.

The more you can anticipate what will fuel resistance to your strategy, the more you can make plans to deal with it and adjust your expectations during strategic thinking and planning. Realize that a major source of potential resistance will come from stakeholders who feel threatened or uncomfortable during the transition; anticipating this, and especially working to identify key stakeholders who might be less apparent sources of resistance (for instance, regulatory agencies), can help you think through and plan more effectively.

Uncovering mistaken assumptions as early as possible during strategic thinking and planning goes a long way toward reducing or even eliminating strategic gridlock during execution. When you understand the common assumptions that hold you back, you can take immediate corrective action to prevent your organization from becoming totally paralyzed. The result will be a realistic balance of what should work with what will work to move your business forward and achieve the high performance results that today's high-pressure business environment demands.

Pamela S. Harper is president of Business Advancement Inc. and author of Preventing Strategic Gridlock®
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