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The Fine Art Of Course Correction

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

A sense of direction is as critical for companies today as it was for young Alice traveling through a strange fictional world. During periods of rapid change, a bold direction helps an organization adapt. Direction is one of nine elements that comprise any organization’s structural ability to change, research my colleague Kevin Murphy and I published in this summer’s Harvard Business Review cover article “How Good Is Your Company at Change?”

It’s hard for people to feel confident about change when they’re unsure which direction to head. But how can leaders provide direction in today’s environment of chronic uncertainty, with its ever-increasing pace of change?

The conventional process for providing such strategic direction—the relatively rigid annual and three-year planning cycle—is on its way to the history books. The business world faces rapidly changing customer behavior, fast-moving technology trends, and increasingly aggressive competitive jostling, and this old model simply can’t keep up. If there was any doubt about that, the pandemic has brought into clear focus just how mismatched fixed-cycle planning is to today’s dynamic environment. “Fixed-cycle is out, and dynamic, adaptive, and connective strategy is (finally) in,” as my colleagues Herman Spruit and James Dixon write in their article How to Breathe New Life into Strategy.”

There are important implications for developing and communicating clear strategic direction. I see many leaders today reimagining how their executive committee spends its time. They are drawing a clear distinction between their business delivery agenda, with its focus on executing business operations on time and on budget, and their development agenda, which is about strategic choices and building new business.

In their book Doing Agile Right, my colleagues Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez describe how Agile leadership teams evolve from spending 60% of their day on operations, 10% on strategy, and 30% on people to just 25% on operations, 40% on strategy, and 35% on people. By making more room to discuss often complex and ambiguous issues related to strategy and people, these executives strengthen their organization’s direction and make it possible to flexibly adjust as new information arrives.

The leadership team of one multibillion-dollar enterprise has split its gatherings into delivery and development-oriented meetings. In delivery meetings, team members solve problems, and managers cultivate constructive dialogues they hope will accelerate results. Some are short business reviews, but many dive deeper to explore issues and correct course as needed, transforming into coaching and experience-sharing sessions that develop both talent and key capabilities.

The development sessions, by contrast, are often held in an offsite location and always include a guest speaker from outside the team. This person provides inspiration and stimulates new thinking and problem solving with unexpected and creative approaches. These gatherings are light on PowerPoint slide presentations and heavy on discussion. Executives check day-to-day operating concerns at the door and instead spend their time reflecting on what they might be missing, what competitors are doing, what customers are telling them, and where their industry is headed. These are not just lofty conceptual discussions. This group probes key issues that might be suited to experimentation, such as a new prototype, for example. Exploring and working creatively to find answers together, executives strengthen their shared fabric of trust, alignment, and collaboration.

We all have a fundamental human desire for clarity of purpose and direction. That’s why seeing an entire map and being able to plot out a journey each step of the way brings comfort, confidence, and security. The business counterpart to that carefully plotted itinerary on the map is the fixed-cycle three-year strategy. But our environment today is so dynamic that this just isn’t realistic anymore. The likelihood that you’ll need to adjust that plan along the way is near certain.

The metaphor that works for me is that of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Years ago, when we lived in the Bay Area of California, I was awestruck looking at the fog that would frequently creep in from the Pacific Ocean to crawl over the bridge like a soft, white blanket. You couldn’t quite see from one side to the other. Crossing, you knew your destination but might only be able to see a few steps ahead.

Like drivers crossing the Golden Gate on a foggy morning, today’s executives probably cannot see the exact route of the journey ahead. Accepting that and setting up systems that allow for frequent reflection and redirection are what make navigation—and success—possible.


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