It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place.
Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that.
When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.
Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities.
The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest. Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t.
If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.
At the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.
Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)
Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?
It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.
Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.