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Startup guide: Don’t be afraid to give your strategic goals a tuneup

Blog: Colin Crofts - Business Process Improvement

I was sitting in the conference room the other day with my computer and sketchbook, working on a new client’s user interaction strategy when one of my business partners, a longtime friend, came in with this look on his face that I would describe as semi-concerned. He closed the door behind him and slumped into the chair as though his knees had given way and sat there in silence. Giving him one minute, I finally asked him just to lay it out there — whatever was on his mind, spill it.

“I think we are losing focus,” he said.
When he comes to me looking like this, I usually chuckle a bit and try to turn whatever he’s concerned about around to something constructive or positive. (He does the same for me.) But this time, my face must have given me away, because as I choked out a laugh his look of concern turned to alarm. Although I could not put my finger on what had been nagging me for the last few days, I now realized that I also was worried we were losing focus — despite many outward signs of success.
What my astute business partner had realized was that our corporate messaging was saying one thing, yet what our new clients needed was something a little closer to the ground.

The fact is, our business is starting to take off and we are all working on several projects at once. We are growing in team size, so we are taking in resumes and vetting candidates. We are in the process of packing up our small office to move to a larger location near Midtown Memphis. And we are in the process of finalizing our branding and messaging for the upcoming launch. Everything seems to be on track.
So what was this nagging feeling all about? Our realization was that we had lost sight of the proverbial forest in our race through the trees. In this case, we started to realize that with the load of projects we were working, it had been weeks since we had talked about our company’s strategic goals.

Recalibrating strategic goals to bridge current and future objectives

As is often the case with startups, strategic goals and objectives will change based on reasons such as changes in technology, desires and directions of customers’ needs — or just a shift in the end-game vision itself. For us, our long-term strategic goals were to provide our customers with a host of offerings that effect a total digital transformation. Yet with our current and growing client list, we were not landing the larger jobs that fit in to this end-state. Instead, we were working on many tactical projects related to Web presence redesign and re-definition (modernization) and customer engagement. What my astute business partner had realized was that our corporate messaging was saying one thing, yet what our new clients needed was something a little closer to the ground.
So now we had to figure out how the trees would once again become a forest. We grabbed some dry erase markers and started listing out our long-term strategy and goals. We gathered our other partners and had a powwow to ensure that we were still on the same page and understood what each person’s areas of responsibility were; we reviewed the associated objectives and goal assignments required to hit our company’s success targets.
We have now readjusted our corporate messaging to not only resonate with our customer base and their current tactical needs but also to show them how these current solutions are the foundation for the larger strategic transformations we outlined in our company’s original long-term goals.

The six-month itch

Here’s the reality: In every startup, somewhere around the four-to-six-month mark, most of the strategic goals you’ve so carefully defined have given way to the tactical activities of constructing the business. If you’ll permit me to change metaphors, let’s leave the woodlands for the moment. A brick house is made of individually laid bricks. At some point, you have to leave the architectural diagram on the table and start building it brick by brick. For most businesses, that usually entails acquiring smaller clients and projects and working in an all-hands-on-deck manner to deliver on commitments. As time goes on, the small projects grow in size, as does your team and your company.

So, by all means, focus on the daily grind of building your business. But be aware that the tactical grind when left unchecked can lead to a significant departure from the original corporate plan of your business. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as sometimes, the ability to adapt can bring something new and unexpected strategic goals that could be better than what was originally designed. Conversely, going back to the brick building, you could also end up with one wall ten feet higher than the other with no way of joining the two. By implementing some general process controls, you can ensure that the strategic vision (forest) is not being obscured by the tactical (trees). Try having weekly partner meetings or displaying the company’s definition of success in the break room — by the beer. Cheers!

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