Startup Life

It’s hard to see the big picture when you're the CEO and Chief Dogsbody

Even tiny companies need to know where they’re going
Francesco | 16.10.17

Startup strategy changes so often, planning more than about 3 months ahead becomes ridiculous, but not planning at all or leaving the strategic thinking to isolated and infrequent meetings is dangerous. Having a strategy is vital, but using it is the really hard battle.

Why is it hard to see the big picture?

"The thing is politicians, they don’t understand tactics. And soldiers? They don’t understand strategy. But Caesar understood both,"

Pat Quinlan (Siege of Jadotville).

1. Different strokes for different folks

What type of thinker are you? Some of us are devoted to strategic thinking, so we actually need a little nudge to leave the high floors of strategic thinking to focus more on execution. Others work better at a tactical or operational level, and so need to push themselves make a step back from the daily tasks to have a look at the big picture. As a CEO of a startup, you need to be doing both so some self-knowledge is critical. Then all it takes is practice!

2. Jumping back and forth

The second reason is that jumping from tactical execution to strategic planning is tiring. To zoom out and look at our strategy we need to stop focusing on what we were doing and switch our cognitive resources: our attention, reasoning and memory on to something different. We can do it of course, but it takes energy, as anyone who's tried it at the end of a long day will have experienced!

3. Out of sight, out of mind

The capacity of our memory is limited so it’s set up to get rid of things as soon as we finish them, so it can make space for more new stuff. The act of writing down our strategy on a document means that we have closed that problem and we can safely forget it. This is completely great when you want to focus on the task in hand and Get Things Done. It’s dangerous though when we do it and then don’t look back at our strategy document regularly. We risk losing sight of the big picture. Our advice? Check your strategy weekly at a team meeting.

Impact on your business

When the big picture is missing you cannot expect coherence in your teamwork. It’s harder to understand what should be prioritised and there is a great risk of wasting time and effort.

In the words of British marketing guru Dave Trott, ‘Strategy is the big picture. Tactics are the little pictures that make up the big picture.’ The problem is that often people focus on tactics only, without having an overall strategy. And tactics without an overall strategy behind them won’t have the right long-term effect on your business.

Using your strategy

But even having a proper strategy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re following it. How often do you have a big long meeting to agree what you’re working on...only to get lost a few weeks later in the execution?

When was the last time you looked at your strategy?

It's totally normal if you haven't, but it’s a symptom of working too much at a tactical and operational level and ignoring your high-level goals. This is more than just a small annoyance: according to research, more than 80% of business problems at the project level are caused by failures to provide clear and shared strategy and priorities. But you’re lucky, your company is still small and you can implement good practices now with ease!

This article is the second part of a three-part series on the big problems small teams have. The first part is on the difficulties of being on the same page as your team and in the third part we'll see some solutions.

We have built a tool to help small teams get an overview of their strategy and execute it, it's called I Am Why, you can read more about it here!

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