One Way to Move Your Business Forward: Look Back

These are difficult times, but businesses still have to conduct strategy sessions on how to place the right bets, how to rationalize resources, and how to gain share.  You have to lean forward despite all the uncertainties.  If you don’t gain forward momentum you’ll eventually fall behind, like swimmers in a strong current or the NFC East.  

Yet you cannot be so fixated on the future that you ignore the past.  This concept was brought home to me years ago when my family and I were going through a typical airport security shakedown.  I was tired from a previous trip and concerned about getting to the gate on time.  After we started walking away, my wife calmly said, “Look back.”  I’d left a valuable bag on the screener belt.  After that incident, we’ve instituted a Look Back procedure in all of our travels: leaving the house, getting out of a cab, departing a plane, driving away, clearing a hotel room, stumbling out of the wine tasting.

I believe a Look Back procedure can be an essential part of any business strategy session.  The problem is, none of us wants to take time to go back over the often-painful details of past plans, especially business leaders who bet wrong.  But there’s gold in the digging.  I was working with a business strategy group as we were entering a down business cycle. Everybody had an opinion on the situation and how we should proceed.  Then, in a moment of clarity, someone asked, “What happened the last time we faced similar conditions?”  No one at the table could answer the question because it was a decade ago.  Someone remembered Bill was working on the strategy team at the time.  The group went to Bill and, despite corporate guidance to the contrary, he’d retained all the records of what happened, how the company responded, and the fortunate results.  Bill’s hoarding saved the company time and made the company money.

Companies use lagging indicators in their reports to look back over financial performance, but figures like cash conversion cycle and return on net assets won’t help you when the CEO asks you for ideas on how to “move the needle.”  And leading indicators of trends, such as the number of innovations and customer service perception, are tricky.  Plus, there’s usually someone on the team who says, “We tried that before” to an idea that might now work.

I think just about every business strategist can agree on one thing: there’s not a magic formula for building a good strategic plan.  So, maybe a place to start is to ask hard questions such as:

  • Does what we contemplate align with our corporate vision?
  • What were the lessons learned when we’ve won big before?
  • What do the business units think we ought to do based on their experiences?
  • What are our contemptible competitors up to?
  • Is it better in this situation to think in or out of the box?
  • Do we have the talent and resources necessary to execute new plans?
  • What are clear, measurable, and achievable goals for action?
  • And will someone please record and save the approved plan?  Bill retired.

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