We’re well into the new year, and by now you certainly have some sense of what you want to accomplish in 2023. I know, because it seems like everyone has been forced to identify some goal, direction, or thought for the year. But setting up a goal, or “strategic objective,” is not the same thing as executing one. And none of this is a vision—which is where the North Star reference comes in. We are not taking on the vision monster today.
This season, I’ve been intrigued to watch how people approach goal setting and, more honestly, how many people do it poorly, myself included.
Recently I was engaged to work with a business on a large-scale strategic plan, something on a scale that the business had not attempted in living memory. It was a good, engaged group of people who had a lot of thoughts and were happy to contribute. Everyone worked hard on it, but when we finally sat back to look at what we’d accomplished, I was surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of what they came up with were tactics, not strategies. Things to do, not reasons to do them.
If you already know the distinction between these concepts, then bear with me as I re-explain them. Put simply, your strategy is your defined, large-scale goal: “I want to accomplish X by doing Y for the reason Z.”
Tactics, on the other hand, are the smaller steps of how you accomplish your strategy. If your strategy is where you want to be, then your tactics are the steps that get you there.
(Other consultants, please suppress the urge to send me hate mail. This is a working definition, not an in-depth analysis.)
As you look at your list of things that you want to accomplish this year, consider your objectives through this lens. Because what I often find is that when I sit down with people to discuss what they want to get done, the conversation becomes very tactical very quickly. And this isn’t just something that happens to people who don’t know any better—anyone can easily make this mistake.
Not too long ago I was in a session that was attended by a company principal, their leadership team, and an outside marketing firm. The goal of this meeting was to discuss the organization’s needs for the upcoming year.
Early on, the principal asked, “How do we do X?”, and, him being the principal, figuring out how to accomplish X immediately became the focus of the session. This tactical, granular discussion went on for about half an hour before a junior marketing individual spoke up.
“We’re here to talk about strategic goals for the year, right?”
Everyone agreed that yes, that was the objective of the session.
“So why did we spend the last 30 minutes talking about how to accomplish something that we haven’t established as a goal? Shouldn’t we be deciding if we want to do this, and if so, what we want to get done with it?”
The principal said, “Huh. Look at that. Yeah, we just went down a rabbit hole.” Thank goodness the junior marketer said something, because nobody else was going to tell the emperor that instead of setting his sights on the stars, he was just digging a ditch.
(Full disclosure: Yes, I was the hapless principal, yes, I should have known better, and yes, I’m very grateful that the junior marketing member spoke up.)
The North Star has become a popular metaphor for one guiding thing that you’re following (e.g., world domination, destroying competition, wiping out the last of House Stark, whatever floats your boat). But how can you avoid my mistake and make sure that you’re not confusing your North Star for a strategy?
I find that performing a gap analysis is helpful in this venture. Put simply, in a gap analysis you identify your current state (things as they are now) and your desired state (things as you’d like them to be in the future).
When making your current state list, you could record something like, “I spend six hours a week working on this task that has very little return.” Then on your desired state list, you could write down, “I want to spend an hour a week on this task for the same return.”
That’s it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t be afraid to go as small- or as large-scale as you want. Once you have both of your lists complete, pick one item for which you can identify a few ways to get from your current state to your desired state. That becomes your strategy, and those ways that you move from current state to desired state are your tactics.
Try this lens of analysis for yourself, and see if your North Star is just a dressed-up tactic. If all of your plans are hyper-granular without a guiding strategy, you’re only treading water and iterating, not growing. And who doesn’t want to grow in the new year?
I’m going to give you some business advice that you probably don’t get a lot: Stop. Stop already! Your business is trying to do too much at once—you’re trying to do too much.
It’s December as I write this, and it’s a mystical time when contracts end, leases expire, and there’s a strong wind of change blowing us into the freshness of a hopeful new year. To see how the people around me are making changes, I’ve been sampling owners and managers in the business world around me.
One of my contacts has wisely identified that their pet project needs to be put down. This was a trial concept that they desperately wanted to work, and as far as I can tell, they did everything right. They gave it a lot of time, support, resources—everything it takes to make a new venture a success.
But after a couple of years of putting in the work and barely scraping by, they came to the realization that this project was never going to be what they wanted it to be. And rather than keep pouring their time and effort into the bottomless hole that this venture would become, they had the foresight and the fortitude to finally pull the plug and move on.
Did it hurt to give up on a project that they cared about and really believed in? Of course it did. But spending another year wasting their time and energy wouldn’t have spared them any pain, and at least now they can look for another project to invest all of those resources into.
Most often, people learn this lesson the hard way. Like someone I know in sales, who spent two months working around the edges on a concept to push into a new sector. He spent hours putting materials together and generally solidifying the foundation for this new material.
I say generally solidifying because he did forget one important step. Early on, I suggested that he take a breath and talk with his market to make sure that there was an interest in this new material, but he insisted that he knew what he was doing and didn’t want to break his momentum.
Unfortunately, the tricky thing about momentum is that it can send you speeding along the road to success just as easily as it can run you straight into a brick wall. That’s why every now and then, it’s a good idea to pump the brakes.
You can probably guess where this is going—he took his new product to market, and every single person he talked to had not a drop of interest in it.
Stopping is often viewed as a failure or, at the very least, a lack of success. But “not winning right this second” and “losing” are very different things. My friend lost two months of work because he could only see his imminent win. And if you don’t want to find yourself in a similar situation, then I’m challenging you to find something to stop working on.
One of my clients was making his plan for 2023, and he saw some dark clouds on the horizon in his business plan. In peeling things back and re-examining his product lines, we discovered a couple of areas that brought in great top lines, but once we factored in the opportunity cost and shared resource allocations, they were clearly losers.
These were beloved products, things that he and the team liked and had done for years, but it was obvious on paper that they weren’t worth what got put into them. And once they realized that they were dragging down the bottom line, my client cut them.
My bet is that you have similar areas that take up a lot of time without bringing in as much revenue as they should. Whether you’re a thousand-person enterprise or a one-person band, there’s probably something that you take to market that isn’t worth what you’re investing into it.
But how do you tell what’s worth your time? In most cases, it’s pretty simple. Look at what you put into the venture and compare that with what comes back. If this is something that you work on personally, look at how much time you put into it, how much you charge for the product or service, and then compare what each aspect costs relative to the whole.
For those who are risk averse and want to experiment a bit before stopping entirely, that’s fine, start by identifying a project that takes a lot of your time and only generates so-so results. Then increase the price or pause delivery. If the market decides it still wants what you offer,it will let you know. If not, then you know it’s time to stop and reinvest that time somewhere else.
Of course, this begs the question, to where do you reallocate that time? I’m so glad you hypothetically asked—that’ll be my topic of conversation next time!
Are you a Hilton person or a Marriott person? I ask because this distinction recently came up while my wife and I were at a family event out of town, and the organizer had booked it at a DoubleTree hotel.
Upon learning this, I did what a rational, sane person does, and pulled out my phone, did a quick search, and dutifully informed my wife that there was a Marriott Courtyard up the road. To her perplexed “What’s your point?” I replied that I only stayed at Marriotts. I could get points, upgrades, special pillows—I’m a Marriott guy!
Anyone in a committed relationship will know that I spent the weekend at the DoubleTree, and it was fine—although I didn’t get an upgrade or free wifi, just saying.
But upon reflecting on it, I know that this neurosis is not unique to me, despite what my wife’s exasperation would imply. I talk to plenty of people who travel regularly, and we all have our own particular loyalties and affinities for different hotel brands.
Curiously, though, none of my contacts have that similar kind of “Google the nearest Marriott location” sort of loyalty for airline brands; we all just take the best deal that’s in front of us while paying nominal attention to the airline.
This begs the question: What are hotel chains doing that airlines aren’t, and why does it engender such affinity?
Looking at airlines, it’s possible to get small rewards—maybe an extra inch or two of overhead space, or the promise not to be squished against a bulkhead in the back of the plane by the bathrooms. But at the end of the day, the promise is thin, and there’s not a clear, consistent way to get those rewards except at the very highest levels..
Not so with the big hotel brands. Their promise is that if you get serious about them, in return you’ll get nicer pillows, a free cookie, free internet, and upgrades you can bank on. They deliver on that loyalty every single time you visit them, so you always have a compelling reason to book with them for your next stay. Not a lot of programs deliver that kind of consistent reward for loyalty, but they do and it serves them well.
If you’re running a business, in all likelihood you don’t have the opportunity to give out big rewards like free suite upgrades or first class seating. But there are probably steps you can take to attract repeat customers and establish some brand loyalty.
Side note: If you’re running a business where you only have one opportunity to sell to a customer ever, then this column isn’t for you, sorry, please come back next month.
But for anyone who has the potential for repeat business, large or small, what benefit does being your repeat customer get people? Your business certainly has some potential, even if it’s not in an industry you’d typically associate with loyalty rewards programs.
A great example is my local fitness center. At first I dismissed their perks program, but then I started getting simple emails showing my points and how to spend these with them. I signed up for some classes and did other things that they liked, and I got a free workout towel—not a cheap piece of terry cloth, but a high quality product that has actually made me go back and purchase other things from them.
They also reward my behaviors that are favorable to them. They’re in an urban area where parking is at a premium, so I can earn a handful of extra points if I walk or bike to their location. This isn’t making or breaking my experience with them, but the small rewards are tangible and nudge me to consider choices that are better for their business as well.
Similarly, you want any type of return business program you offer to feel like a win for both you and your customer. And if a rewards program doesn’t make sense for your business, what about referrals?
I own a transactional business in the leisure industry, and a lot of our business is from people who live in another state or country, so the opportunity for repeat business is slim. But we have rewards for referrals, which gets us great word of mouth business, and we have plenty of customers who come to us at roughly the same time every year when they’re in the area so we have an offer out to them for a special discount at that time. This nudge helps bring back customers who could easily choose a different provider.
Ask yourself what you can do to give someone that little extra reason to come back. And let me know what you figure out, because all I have is my own little laboratory to try out new offerings, and I’m always curious to hear what people are doing to retain business and engender affinity with their customers.