Are you running a Schrodinger start-up?

leadership planning strategy Feb 01, 2022
A black and white cat

Happy New Year! Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to the business of asking some searching questions...

Let’s start with new year resolutions, which are a curious phenomenon. For all the rigmarole that attends their selection, they are an inherently good thing. Not just because we all want to be fitter and healthier, or at least less intoxicated and poisoned. But because they also encourage us to look objectively at our lives in a way that seems impossible during the rest of the year. New year provides a natural moment for reflection and retrospection. However, such resolutions may be dying out. According to YouGov, only 12% in the UK set resolutions in 2020. That’s similar to the USA (estimated 10%). They are also far from effective, with only 26% of people saying they kept all their resolutions in 2019. 48% kept some and 23% didn’t keep any. So not many people feel the need to formulate a change in their lives and three quarters who try to change fail to deliver desired outcomes.  

That’s not an encouraging thought when you consider that this is the time of the year to do your business’s strategic planning. Amazon has the luxury of planning years ahead, but most mortal businesses have to develop a clear plan of action for the next twelve months. All too often planning defaults to a ‘more of the same but slightly better’. This entails looking at last year’s OKRs and upweighting them. That’s the path of incrementalism.

It is, however, a perilous one which has done for many a business. Because while incrementalism may work for most periods, it won’t for this one. You can’t optimise your way to strategic success. That can only be achieved through astute analysis and quality thinking. You need to fight off any fatigue and face down any zombie mindsets that are sleep-walking into the new year. Only a thorough piece of soul-searching will re-invigorate your business and set it on a new path towards success.

No plan of action can be formulated without asking searching questions, such as:

·       What should our goals be? (Clue: not last year plus 10%

·       Was last year a good year? (Should you have achieved more? How did everyone else do?)

·       Why?

·       What do we need to do differently next year?

None of these can be definitively tackled until you can answer these:

·       How is the market changing?

·       How does this affect the opportunity we were working towards?

·       How do these dynamics favour or threaten our business?

·       Are we fit for purpose?

Most start-ups are like Schrodinger’s cat: they are both alive and dead at the same time. There are things that you are doing in relation to the marketplace that are fundamentally right and will lead to your eventual success. But, simultaneously, there are things that you are doing in relation to the marketplace that are fundamentally wrong and will lead to your eventual failure. The elixir of life and toxicity of certain death co-exist. The problem is, like Schrodinger’s cat, these are impossible to see because your business has yet to be exposed to the new sub-atomic market pressures that will expose them.

You have to stay ahead of the game by anticipating change. The way to do this is to see your business’s current dynamic state as one of many possible ones. Don’t question whether you have to reconfigure it to deal with new internal and external conditions. Because -and this is where most planning goes wrong- there will definitely be new conditions. The same staff you sent off for a Christmas break will be back with their own new year resolutions, hopes and aspirations, troubles and pressures. Every competitor and investor will be making changes to their own dynamic states in anticipation that it will give them a winning edge. And beyond them, millions of other organisations and customers are all doing the same thing, in the hope that next year is better than last. Markets are never static. You have to take the time to look for the signals that are most meaningful for your business.

Instead, as you start your planning process, assume you will have to change your business state. The key question that you must answer is this: how are we going to reconfigure our business to capitalise on the latest opportunity?  Start with this premise and you will end in a much better place.

You may have to turn detective to discover the right answer. This calls for a variety of skills. From the cunning of Hercule Poirot to unpick the psychology of your top team; the empathy of Clarice Starling to guess what your target customers want; the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to gain new insights from old evidence; to the courage to challenge processes of Colin Sutton, the real-life copper, who overturned 20 years of orthodoxy to catch the Night Stalker.

A short and vigorous review of everyone and everything should tease out new strategic options, clarify what to double-down on, and identify the elements of your business that may become toxic if left unchecked or exposed to new market conditions. Could there be a more fun way to start the new year?!  

Or you could just do more of the same, only better, in the dual hope that everyone else is doing the same and that you aren’t running a Schrodinger start-up… 


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