How to build a corporate strategy by answering tough questions Featured

8:58am EDT August 15, 2013
Andy Kanefield Andy Kanefield

"There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” 

— Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM from 1993 to 2002

My experience has led me to believe that many leaders think that just having a new mission statement, vision statement or articulation of their values is sufficient to engage their people. And after they have restated these organizational imperatives, many of these same leaders wonder why people don’t respond in ways they hope.

Gerstner’s experience at IBM gives us a clue to one of the reasons. He believed he had good reasons to avoid a new vision statement. The first reason was his observation that IBM had “file drawers full of vision statements.” The second reason was that the problem was paralysis — IBM wasn’t executing.

Gerstner knew that while IBM hadn’t created a new vision, it had already made strategic decisions about the future of IBM — which included being focused externally on the customer rather than an “internally focused, process-driven” organization. 

So what was Gerstner right about? In order to be successful in the short term and sustainable for the long term, businesses have to be clear on a key set of questions, and vision is just one of those questions.

Whatever model for building a corporate strategy you choose to use, ensure that it addresses the following questions as a starting point:

What business are you in? 

First, you need to know whom you’re competing against. Think about being in the restaurant business. That could mean anything from a place that serves pizza slices to the finest sit-down restaurant in Manhattan. Secondly, consumers like categories such as fast casual or fast food. It helps us set our expectations for our experience with you.

Who are your customers? 

If your primary customers don’t perceive value in what you offer, you won’t have a business. What do these customers care about? What difference do you make for those customers? This question is often expressed as a mission or purpose. It helps express the value that you deliver.

How are you different from your peers? 

One layer is, “How are you unique or better than your peers?” The answer to this question must be something that engenders customer loyalty over the long-term.

A second layer is, “What quality, that is central to the DNA of your organization, enables you to be unique or the best within your category?” If you are the fastest of the fast food category, what trait have you built within your company that drives that speed? Is it uniformity or an unrelenting focus on continuous improvement?

What are your core capabilities that deliver your strength? 

These end up being your strategic priorities. If you’re the least expensive fast food restaurant, your core capabilities may include expert ability to manage your capital, superior logistics, consumer insights and aggressive vendor negotiation.

What behaviors are important  for success? 

Often called values, these are the beliefs that you and your organization have that manifest themselves into organizational and individual behavior.

What future do you want to create? 

Finally, we get to the vision. It is important that you have a direction that people, especially employees, can clearly see. If they don’t know where you’re going, they won’t know how to help you get there.

Building the answers to the questions above is not a discrete process — the answers are linked. This is the primary reason that just having an expression of your mission, vision and values isn’t enough. Without answers to all these questions, you won’t be able to outrun the competition over the long-term.

 

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to align your mission, vision, values and other aspects of your strategy, reach him at (314) 863-4400 or andy@dialect.com.