I’m generally a fan of John Hagel, but Rob Llewellyn recently drew my attention in one of his posts to John’s “Zoom-in, Zoom-out” approach to business strategy which re-awakened my longstanding concern that we may be in danger of re-inventing the wheel.

With time fast running out for businesses that haven’t already transformed, I firmly believe those of us who advise them should be keeping things as simple as possible. Inventing terminology or giving new names to things we already accept, understand and follow can’t be helpful and from the way John describes “zoom-in, zoom-out” it seems nothing more than business “vision and mission”, which we all understand, or should.

“Vision” is where an organisation wants to be in three-to-five years time. John describes this as the “opportunity” and his projection covers a span of ten-to-twenty years rather than my three-to-five, which, given the exponential pace of change and the nature of disruption, seems to me rather more like crystal ball-gazing. We all know that it’s impossible to predict with any degree of usefulness how things will look in ten years time. Twenty years …?

“Mission” represents the milestones or boxes you need to check along the journey to your objective. In my context these are represented as individual, relatively short-term projects. John describes the role of the “objective” as the determinant of the appropriateness of short-term initiatives. Again, he adopts a different time scale, in this case six to twelve months for the individual initiatives.

Any glued-together business these days will have criteria for assessing the relevance of initiatives at various stages in their development and the most significant of these is “Does it contribute to my objective?” If circumstances change (and they will) or the initiative takes a swerve into the unpredicted (as the nature of the digital environment and “agile” project management makes most likely) and the initiative is judged to be off course, then you shelve it. In the digital economy, things change all the time and, as I have highlighted, even vision and mission can’t be set in stone.

I do agree, though, with John’s belief that organisations should confine themselves to no more than two or three of these six-to-twelve-month projects. I usually start with a long list of projects, which I prioritise and schedule, so there are never more active projects than the business can handle and two or three at a time is, for most, about right.

Right now, our priority has to be progress. There are far too many businesses that haven’t even started their transformation and time is running out far more quickly than they appear to realise. Because they are so late to the party, businesses starting their transformation journey right now have to move far quicker than their predecessors. They also have to get it right first time, which is something very few businesses have done so far. 70% of transformations are currently failing and now that digital natives comprise the market majority, certainly in the UK, but equally in many other developed economies, the proportion of businesses that will cease to exist as a consequence of transformation failure will increase. So, I’m in the business of stripping out non-essential process and concentrating on driving home the understanding of and developing skills in the tools we are already familiar with.

Other examples of what I believe is unnecessary complexity emerge in some of John’s other articles. For example, he has devoted many words to differentiate “narrative” and “purpose”, two terms that pop up from time to time in marketing discussions. Do we need this debate? Probably not. Even the narrative concept seems redundant, basically it’s just a rationale for the strategy, so let’s just call it that. In the same way, the notion of a brand story, which he also explores elsewhere is a distraction. If you need to explain your brand with a story surely you have lost before you start. If we are to achieve the efficiency and nimbleness essential for survival in the digital economy we have to unclutter and focus. All we need is a vision, the mission, the promise that’s enshrined in your brand (you could arguably interpret this, as John has, as “purpose”) and a reason to believe this, or substantiation, which I and most other people I come across refer to as the “pillars” of your argument.

All of this is incorporated in the first “brand discovery” stage of my brand-led business transformation programme, which itself is the leanest and quickest solution for any business yet to undergo transformation. I firmly believe the time for debating processes and terminologies is well past. Now we need to seriously get to work rescuing our businesses that are facing the end of the road and doing all we can to align them to the opportunities of the digital economy.

First published on LinkedIn October 2017

Phil Darby
August 3, 2018

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