The surprising trait needed for strategic conversations in 2021

When working on strategy with clients we normally focus on a three-year horizon, sometimes five years, and even up to twenty years ahead. But in 2020 many of my clients – whether they were in travel, business events, or even professional associations – have been saying the same thing:

“We just need to survive the next 6 – 12 months and then we will worry about the future later!”

In 2020 covid taught us we could be more adaptable, even creative in a crisis – we were forced into making faster decisions, changing the way we do things, and even what we do. But I also saw many organisations lose confidence in their ability to plan for the longterm.

In some ways that made perfect sense. We all saw the groundrules shift constantly, with lockdowns, border shutdowns and just too much uncertainty preventing many organisations from looking ahead with confidence.

But here’s another perspective - there’s always been uncertainty about the future, always. We’ve never been able to control everything, we just used to think we could!

That’s the myth we tell ourselves – that if we get the strategy right, if there’s a perfect document on the shelf, then everything will just fall into place. But that’s not the way it works.

This shock into the unknown in 2020 has reminded us that circumstances are always shifting. Our operating environment and our own organisations change over time, sometimes abruptly. That doesn’t mean we give up on strategy – it underlines the importance of looking ahead and reaching shared agreement about your long game – because that builds the resilience you need to keep moving forward despite upheaval.

Long before covid, Canadian strategy guru Professor Roger Martin wrote this:

“If you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good... True strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success." [HBR 2014]

So my key takeout from 2020 is the importance of blending humility into our imaginative, ambitious, strategic conversations. Simply by acknowledging we can't control everything, we are more likely to widen perspectives and able to adapt as circumstances change.

Succeeding in our long game requires confidence and commitment, but acknowledging uncertainty will increase the power of our strategic conversations about how to achieve those ambitions.

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