The crux of effective strategy.

Why we need to let go of old baggage

It took me a week, and I did it in stages, but I finally have space in my wardrobe again.

I know it’s not been the lockdown story of many people, and for some, it has understandably been the opposite, but without the constant business travel, irregular meals, snatched lunches and cookies and cakes over coffee, that were all regular parts of my pre-pandemic life, I managed to shed a fair few pounds over the last year. Well… more than a few.

But despite having picked up a whole bunch of new clothes that fit, something held me back from ditching all the older stuff. What if I put the weight back on? What if I need them next year? What if…? None of this is rational. But then letting go of stuff never is, even when it appears to be.

Eventually, I could no longer fit everything into my wardrobe, and pragmatism forced my hand. At first, I just removed anything that was way too big, but then I had a breakthrough. I removed everything, and only added back those things that fit me really well, and that I really liked wearing. It was liberating and inspiring in equal measure.

That breakthrough was prompted by an insight from my work. The last twelve months have been the busiest since I started consulting, and at times, my work-wardrobe had been full to bursting, and from last Summer onwards, I’d had to start turning people down.

To begin with, it was purely reactive to workload, and it never felt entirely comfortable. What if I was turning away a really interesting engagement? What if they couldn’t find the help elsewhere? What if…?

A cornerstone of strategy, and often the hardest one to carve out, is defining what you will not do: where you won’t go, and what you will stop doing. It’s hard because those same tendencies kick in: the fear of missing out; the reluctance to walk away from previous investment, financial or emotional; the “what if” questions rolling around the back of your mind.

But after a while I took my own strategy advice, listened to the things I’d been saying to clients for years, and spent some time thinking about the types of work that really fit me well, and that I really liked doing. Then, and this was the hardest thing, I resolved to become far more discerning and selective about the work I want to do, and by extension, the organisations I want work with.

To silence those “what if” voices, I had to define my ideal work, where I add greatest value, and the ideal types of people for me to work with. I had to clarify the rationale, the “why”, first to myself, and subsequently to others. And to actually make it happen, I had to create a “not to do” list, alongside my “to do” list.

We all have a limited capacity. There’s only so much work we can fit into our day and into our organisations, just as there’s only so much clothing we can fit in our wardrobes. Sure, you can add more capacity, but the bigger you are, the slower you go, and as long as we’re laden down with old, irrelevant baggage, we will never progress our strategies with a fraction of the pace we could.

A strategy, whether organisational or personal, is not a strategy if it doesn’t articulate your “why”, and use that to define your ideal work, your ideal customers, and the ideal value you provide to them. Nor can your strategy be executed if it doesn’t have a “not to do” list alongside it.

Not all work and not all customers will be good for your business, and not all of the things you do in your role are good for you. What should be on your “not to do” list?