Does The Wizard of Oz hold the secret to your business success?

Originally published on June 5, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

My son popped in the other day and told me that he had signed up for his first ‘group’ at university: The Graduating Class of 2020.

Impressive,” I said, “since you just received your acceptance yesterday.” He then reminded me of my own words over the years: “You’ve got to have a goal.”

Any parent reading this will recognize what a monumental moment this was for me. Not that my son was off to university, but that he had actually remembered one thing that I had said to him during his first 18 years! Actually, he went on to tell me his sub-goals. Having joined a co-op program that offers opportunities for international placements, he has mapped out the places where he hopes to visit for both work and study terms during each year of his program.

How many of you have a five-year vision for your business that includes not only strategic goals but also sub-goals – those small steps that will lead you to where you want to go?

I can honestly say that at my company, we have such a plan. As our horizon spans the next five years, I call it our 2020 Vision. But it’s not a perfect, sealed document preserved under glass for people to marvel at for the next five years.

Quite the opposite: It’s a working document, clearly and succinctly articulated on a whiteboard in plain sight. It includes the over-arching vision for the company, and highlights our five key strategic pillars which range from the high level (the refinement of corporate vision and values) to the pragmatic (revisiting the eight steps that we follow to acquire and delight customers), as well as the purely practical (upgrading our technology infrastructure).

Running an emerging boutique-sized organization, I can fully empathize with the pain you may feel when you hear the phrase ‘strategic plan.’ Sure, planning requires work. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. And it doesn’t have to be a static, hold-your ground plan. There will be many unpredictable elements that affect your businesses in the next week or month, let alone five years. So, your plan needs to be flexible.

This is why I break the strategy process into planning and discovery. To (over)simplify, think of it as six steps:

1. Engage in a free-flowing discussion with your senior team about your organization’s five-year goals.

2. Identify and articulate your company’s strategic pillars (exploring five top-level areas of focus is a common outcome).

3. On a board, summarize those five (or so) pillars, each in about 100 words. Have bullet-point steps under each heading, along with anticipated delivery dates and the name of the person charged with getting these things done.

4. The person-in-charge should put together a top-level plan for his or her project. Again, this doesn’t have to get cumbersome. A couple of pages can usually summarize the project’s goals, objectives, milestones, timelines, resources and desired outcomes.

5. Meet monthly with each of the project leaders – individually and as a group – to monitor progress and see where you or the full team can help out if a project starts to flounder.

6. Allow for changes, refinements and updates. How? Read on about the second element of our planning process, which we call Discovery.

Discovery acknowledges from the get-go that things are going to change. And that your organization, team and plan have to be elastic.

John Cardoso, the founder of Spyder Works, likens this part of the process to the epic journey that takes place in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.” Pushing your organization in a long-term strategic direction is akin to the film’s storyline of Dorothy embarking on an epic journey towards a defined goal: going home. During the journey, team members join her and eventually learn a lot about themselves, their potential, and their ability to cope with problems along the way.

Working together, thinking beyond tomorrow morning, galvanizes us as business teams. Learning to recognize, adapt and adopt to changes around us makes us hardy travelers and formidable competitors.

Dorothy’s journey in the movie also reminds us that we must rediscover and embrace the sense of wonder and curiosity that most of us gave up in grade school. Encourage ongoing questioning and refinements to surface organically as new evidence and opportunities arise.

This is why we double-back and add in the sixth step to the process.

6. Allow for changes, refinements and updates. To encourage creative input, I place Post-it notes and a pen beside our strategy board so that anyone can add their future-forward ideas (be they high-level or project-specific). This may sound like a minor part of the process, but it isn’t. It reminds the team that these (and all) projects are not static, but fluid. They are not perfect plans, but opportunities we have shared that we think about regularly and build on continuously.

Throughout your strategic journey, you will encounter unforeseen situations and daunting challenges, (e.g., competitors, social change, new technologies), just as Dorothy did. But the strength they gained in travelling together helped Dorothy and her unlikely leadership team discover the tools and talents they needed to reach their strategic goal. For Team Dorothy, those tools and talents included perseverance, intelligence, empathy and courage – probably the same characteristics you want to see in your own teams.

What colour is your company’s yellow brick road? Where is it going to take you? Plans can change, yes. But that is no excuse for not making them. You never know when your business will encounter lions or tigers or bears – but with a plan, you’ll see them coming a lot sooner.

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