Why achieving strategic clarity isn’t as easy as it sounds

So much success in business derives from the clarity of a leader’s strategic vision. You know what you want to do and precisely why and how you should be doing it. Because it’s clear in your mind, you are able to communicate it to people in a way that they too can understand.

Through all the complexity that your business contains, all those moving parts, everyone is able to link back to that clear vision, purpose and strategy, and align what they are doing accordingly. You all row in the same direction, and it’s the right direction.

It sounds so easy.

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It’s not. If it were, it wouldn’t be so rare to see it. Many businesses fall victim to a lack of clarity, and many growth journeys are derailed because of it. Here are some reasons why, and what you can do about it.

What makes sense to you doesn’t necessarily make sense to other people

You can be clear about something but still wrong. Most leaders in failing companies believe they have a clear strategy for taking it to a new level. Most leaders in growing companies believe they have a clear strategy to become the next big thing. They are often quite mistaken.

Top tip: Sense check your strategy and the assumptions behind it. Talk to people you trust – mentors and advisors, friends and family – and ask for honest feedback. Even better, grow a culture in your business where people are not afraid to raise their eyebrows and say they don’t get it.

Best of all, be prepared to listen to them when they do. Even if ultimately you decide to stick with your convictions, it’s vital to hear challenges.

You’re focusing on too many things

In photography, aperture is everything. If you set the aperture narrow, you’ll get a greater depth of field: everything will be just about in focus, whether it’s in the foreground or background. It’ll show you what’s in front of you, but it won’t win you any prizes.

Widen the aperture, and you’ll get a shallower depth of field – most things will be fuzzy, but that one thing you actually want to shoot will be in stunning clarity.

The business equivalent of a narrow aperture is an all-singing, all-dancing strategic vision that stretches attention in too many different directions at once. Because everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, and staff are more likely to feel overwhelmed, impacting execution.

Top tip: Focus on a particular thing rather than being vague. ‘We’re going to make everyone happy by giving them the products they want’ is far worse than ‘we’re going to help busy working parents feed their children with a range of time-saving, delicious, nutritional kids meals’.

You aren’t communicating it well

If something is clear in your mind, it will certainly help you to communicate it well, but it doesn’t guarantee it. You may simply not be saying it enough to people – as several major CEOs reminded me during the pandemic, you can’t over-communicate as a leader.

Or, the message may be getting lost as it permeates through the organisation, particularly if you’re a large firm with a hierarchical structure. Or you just need to work on your communication skills.

Top tip: Leaders are normally great communicators, but not always. If that’s not you, you can either work on it yourself or you can delegate that responsibility to another member of the senior leadership team.

If the message is getting lost in the hierarchy, target it to the middle managers and make it their responsibility to pass it on. And if you’re not talking enough, the answer is simply to make the time to communicate more.

The desire for clarity leads to reductionism

In his book The Frontiers of Knowledge, philosopher A.C. Grayling describes a set of problems that bedevil our ability to understand difficult things. One of these is the ‘Parmenides Problem’, the implicit danger of trying to reduce things to a single, simple, ultimate cause or principle.

This might translate to wanting your strategic business vision to be clear, simple, and easy to explain and express. In fact, we may even think that it can’t be any good unless it is easy to explain and express.

But why should we expect reality to conform to that principle? Quantum physics doesn’t. Neuroscience doesn’t. The right answer – and the best strategy – may not be easy to understand, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon it for something that looks neater in a slide deck.

Top tip: It’s fine to condense your strategy and vision for the business into a paragraph, a few bullet points or indeed to a single guiding principle, to help you communicate it to people and engage them.

But don’t confuse your elevator pitch with your detailed business plan. Make sure that you and other key leaders in the business are also clear on the fuller, more complex version as well as the soundbites.

Clarity doesn’t always translate into execution

There is more to strategic execution than just having clarity about what you’re supposed to be doing and why. You need good people. They need to be well-managed, so they work well together. They need to be given sufficient resources to execute.

They need a strong culture that motivates and empowers them to contribute to their fullest. They need day-to-day leadership, not just an occasional performance in town halls or site visits.

Top tip: When you’re measuring performance against strategy, be very careful to distinguish between execution and vision. Non-judgemental questioning, perhaps from an objective third party, can help determine why people made certain decisions and why things worked or didn’t in achieving them.

If they get the vision, but didn’t execute, then work on factors like culture and management and leadership. If they don’t get the vision, then it’s up to you to understand why and correct it (see points above).