Don’t Just Collect The Dots—Connect Them

I am fortunate to have observed and participated with dozens of presidents and CEOs as they engaged in developing strategy. Almost all had the same goal…an orderly path to the future.  How interesting as well to study the diverse approaches to accomplishing that goal.

A few executives I have known have lived and breathed strategy, approaching it as a virtual chess game, contemplating moves by customers and competitors through a vibrant process that never slowed. Those same individuals didn’t care much about documenting their maps to the future, a trait that didn’t seem to impair their forward leadership but often did leave their colleagues unsettled, in need of clarity on frequent and sometimes subtle changes in direction.

Quite the opposite were those who were more formal, embracing strategic planning processes, broad participation and buy-in by stakeholders and regular updates to measure progress and refine course. And, there were all the others who fell in between the ‘cerebral’ strategists and those who championed process. What I learned from this wide array of approaches led me to teach others that developing a strategy, in its simplest form, can be thought of as the art of collecting’ dots’— and then connecting them!

Collecting ‘dots.’ We all do it.  We read, we listen, we process and we intuitively file away pieces of information which by themselves may seem incidental.  Connecting those dots, at least for me, lays the foundation for an effective strategy.  Consider first the subtlety of collecting and then the dynamics of connecting.

The subtlety of collecting

I actually had a VP once ask me, ‘How did you come up with that?’  In fact, he himself had done so months prior during an extended but casual conversation about the business. My radar went up over a particular statement he made and I filed that ‘dot’ away until it fit meaningfully into our planning process. When I reminded him that it was his idea, his recollection was vague!

The impact of connecting

We were being threatened by far eastern competitors, starting to show themselves north of the border with an inferior product but predatory pricing at least 25% below ours. They were beginning to flirt with our stateside customers.  Dot

At about the same time, a company from another country in the same part of the globe approached us about buying our technology.  They were currently using technology from one of our domestic competitors.  Dot

This same company was facing price competition from their regional competitors and hoped to blunt them with a better product (ours).  Dot

The competitors they were facing were no less than those now showing themselves north of the border as a threat to us.  Dot

We weren’t willing to sell our technology and shipping our product to the company wanting to buy it was cost prohibitive.  Dot

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It took a little more time than it did to write about it here, but our strategy evolved by connecting these dots.  We licensed our technology to the company seeking to buy it!  By doing so, we impaired our domestic competitor with whom our new licensee had been affiliated, provided the licensee access to a product and technology to blunt its competitors in the far east and ‘influenced’ those same competitors to retreat from north of our border to defend their homeland customer base from our new licensee.

What’s the point?  A purely cerebral process can drive strategic thinking as can a formal broad based approach.  In both cases, and all points in between, the common thread must be in collecting the dots we find every hour, every day.  For many of us it is second nature; for others it will likely become so.  Thereafter, our challenge is to continuously and meaningfully connect those dots to shape the direction and the wellbeing of the enterprises we lead.

Lesson learned.

Read more: No Organization Is Immune From Blurred Boundaries

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.