Frame It

Colorful Paper Clip With Pile Of Paper Reports Arranged On Table

Think of the forests that would be standing today if not for weighty strategic plans — you know, those tomes that come from months of time consuming effort, the result of which is so thickly detailed that some poor soul is likely to strain a muscle lifting its numerous pages onto a shelf . . . where it will sit collecting dust until a few years down the road when the process starts all over again. Save the tree.

I absolutely believe that good strategy is critical for organizational success. I also happen to believe that most strategic plans are outdated before they ever hit said shelf (and they stay on the shelf for that very reason) because they are built around a specific set of variables that can change at the drop of a hat. So if strategy is critical, but strategic plans don’t work, what is a leader to do? Frame it.

A strategic framework identifies a few (like two or three) main areas of focus and a small number of indicators of success. That’s it. It identifies what you are working toward, and how you will know when you get there, but does not define (plan) the how. That happens along the way. Yes, I realize a number of readers who really like black and white details just started twitching. Hang with me . . .

A strategic framework applies the concept of emergent strategy, where ongoing observation, reflection and feedback enable leaders to adapt their actions as needed in response to changing variables to most effectively reach the intended goal. Re-read that sentence. You’ve got to admit, it really does make a lot of sense. Things are going to change on the way to your vision, so why would you want to put huge amounts of time into developing a plan that acts like they won’t?

In addition, the brevity of a strategic framework allows for much greater clarity of focus. How much easier is it for your staff to remember two key areas of focus than it is to remember a 47 point plan? How much more powerful is a targeted one page document than a ream of objectives, tactics and additional sub-points. Which do you think is going to excite your staff, and make them want to get on board with where you’re going?

Don’t be fooled. A boiled down, targeted framework takes effort to develop. Clarity of focus, simply stated, takes discipline, it is hard to achieve . . . It is also powerful, and motivating, and provides the direction staff need to continually adapt to a volatile environment and still reach the end goal.

The strategy is simple. Ditch the plan, save a tree, identify your destination . . . And frame it.

Dreamer or Leader?

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What kind of person would look at a rugged mountain of red rocks and decide that was the perfect place to build a chapel . . . Or look to the heavens and decide we should put a man on the moon . . . What kind of person believes in a future that most wouldn’t dare to imagine?

That person is either a dreamer or a leader.

How can you tell the difference? A leader is a dreamer with a plan.

Sure, lots of people have big ideas, they talk a good game. Their eyes light up as they describe “someday” and how amazing it’s all going to be. But when pushed for details of how they’re going to get there, the “if onlys” start to seep into the storyline. The barriers, the set-backs, the roadblocks some external force — usually the all-powerful “they” — puts in place, all conspire to continually push the amazing possibility ever further out of reach . . . for the dreamer.

Can you even imagine the challenges Marguerite Brunswig Staude, the person responsible for the construction of the Chapel of the Holy Cross (shown above), faced in her quest to carry out her vision? For the leader, roadblocks are an expected part of the journey, not a reason to bring it to a halt. Rather than dissolve the dream, barriers build the resolve of the leader, and his or her team, to reach their bold goal.

Are you dreaming about a big idea, or planning to make it happen?

Please don’t hear me say that dreams are bad. Most great plans start with a dream … A big hairy audacious goal. But those dreams will never become a reality if you aren’t willing to take the setbacks in stride and keep pressing forward. If you’re shooting for something that hasn’t been done before, it’s going to be hard. Expect it, prepare for it, and don’t let it throw you off track when it happens. Of course you’ll have skeptics. Your dream isn’t their dream, so what you’re trying to accomplish doesn’t seem reasonable to them (most big dreams aren’t!) That’s okay. Make it happen anyway!

How? One step at a time. Sure you may have to take some side roads and detours, sometimes even doubling back and retracing the same path. That’s one more way you can tell a dreamer from a leader. Dreamers tend to be locked into a specific path. When that path doesn’t work out, well, they tend to think the dream just isn’t in the cards. Leaders, on the other hand keep their eye focused on the end goal. If one path doesn’t get them there, they’ll try another. Think about it … How many big breakthroughs happened on the first try, on the exact course laid out In the original plan? Exactly. Leaders keep at it until they reach their goal, and in so doing, they motivate their team to do the same.

Dreams are easy, anyone can have them. Making something amazing happen on a rugged hillside… That takes the dogged efforts of a leader.

Which would you rather be … A dreamer, or a leader?

Kill the Big Hairy Beast . . .

Bigfoot. . . You know, those 47-page strategic plans that organizations spend six-months developing and then promptly place on a shelf to collect dust until a year from now when someone suggests maybe we should see if we are accomplishing any of those things we thought were so critical to our success. Kill them. They suck the energy out of those who put them together (with the exception of that one highly detailed person in Quality Assurance who is absolutely critical to your organization but certainly doesn’t represent the norm), and often times those who read them can’t remember the original goal by the time they get to the end of tactic number 53.

Let me be clear. I absolutely think a clearly communicated strategic framework is a fundamental component of good leadership, I just don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we make it so painfully complex. How can we expect our staff to think strategically about the daily opportunities that present themselves if they can’t remember the organization’s key strategic areas of focus?

Our organization’s strategic framework consists of four areas of focus with four goals under each area. That’s it. It fits on one page. And I’d be willing to bet money, or even chocolate, that every one of my senior leaders can tell you the four areas of focus without batting an eye. I’d like to be able to say that every one our staff members could too, but that might be stretching it a bit. Still, I bet you’d be amazed at how many of them could come pretty close. So what are they?

 Big Reach

Measure What Matters

Chaddock Pride

All Aboard

 For those of you who are sitting there smugly saying to yourself, “That’s just silly, I have no idea what those four things mean,” I would respond, “You don’t have to. Our staff do, our board does, and we’re the ones responsible for keeping this organization on the cutting edge.” We can look at a project and easily identify it as a Big Reach effort, or a more effective way to Measure What Matters. When it comes to organizational values or strategic direction, how are you going to know if you’re living them out if you don’t know what they are? And how are you going to remember what they are if it takes a 47-page document to explain them?

Another example. A number of years ago, we boldly claimed that we wanted our organization to be the Mayo Clinic of Trauma and Attachment. Our staff got fired up about that! They suddenly had a picture of where we were going and they wanted to help us get there. To this day, our staff knows that any new program idea needs to be presented through the lens of trauma and attachment. If they can’t do that, the answer is no. We gave them a strategic road map, rather than a strategic ball and chain, and their enthusiasm (and our success!) soared.

In today’s fast-paced environment no group of leaders, no matter how wise or prophetic, can sit in a room and determine exactly what an organization should be doing 36-months down the road. And if they try, their organization is likely to miss all the fun stuff that comes up along the way.  Our organization is making significant, exciting progress on the journey to being the Mayo Clinic of trauma and attachment; and, if we had tried to crystal ball what the path would look like when we first set that strategic destination, we would have totally missed the mark.

Kill the big hairy beast.

Less is more! But I have to warn you, (you knew there was a down side, right?!?) less is also harder. Less means saying no to things that you could do, and could probably do well. It means giving up on the dream of being all things to all people. Less means doing the hard work of distilling down to those few things that are most central to accomplishing your mission. Less can be a bit scary, because there is no flowery, fog-producing prose or 14-step process to hide behind.   Less is all those things. And it’s also energizing and inspiring and unifying and . . . (wait for it) . . . ultimately strategic.

Are you brave enough to banish the beast?

–Debbie Reed