2019: Courage, focus, and the fork in the road

January 3, 2019

Yogi Berra, the timeless philosopher and all-star catcher for the New York Yankees, famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” While his phrasing might not have passed the scrutiny of a high-school English teacher, Yogi’s notorious sayings never lacked for passion or meaning. And this quote hits a home run in terms of helping companies deal with their biggest challenge: creating a flexible strategy to power growth in 2019 and beyond.

In baseball, the catcher is the on-field leader, consulting with the coach, setting the infield and advising the pitcher. This natural gift for communication might explain how Yogi, in just 12 words, gave us such a useful model for addressing business purpose and change.

  1. The road: The choice of path that your organization will travel to make the most meaningful impact on its customers represents your strategy.
  2. The fork: How your organization manages ongoing choices and opportunities represents your tactical and operating plan.
  3. Take it: All organizations need a succinct framework and set of criteria to quickly assess new options. This is your decision-matrix, which incorporates strategic, financial and go-to-market benchmarks.

These three simple steps enable us to analyze opportunities at many different levels. They help us to balance the big picture and the details; act on those details in the most innovative way; and make the most of our limited resources.

There’s just one problem. In my experience, most organizations don’t recognize when they’ve reached a fork in the road, because they’ve never committed to a focused vision or an aligning strategy. Without this consensus, an organization is a traveler with a map, but no destination – making every fork in the road a potential peril.

I used to think this was just an issue for entrepreneurs: people who live by the gut, chase shiny objects and hold their breath. But, over my 17 years at Spyder Works, I’ve found ambiguity and hope influencing organizations of all sizes. At a recent meeting where I challenged the clarity of an organization’s vision statement, one senior executive actually said, “We wanted to keep it a little vague so as not to box ourselves into a corner.”

My direction? “Don’t be vague. You have to be fearless, focused and disciplined.”

Your organization can’t begin to be fearless, focused or disciplined if its leaders can’t describe what it is, what it does best, and why.  Leaders need to figure out what business they are really in, who their markets are, and what those markets really need. Yet most still work through guessing and assuming.

This is why many businesses get stuck running what already is, instead of understanding and innovating what could be. For instance, someone, somewhere, once asked: Can a gas station sell more than gas? Is a corner store in the business of selling milk, snacks and cigarettes – or does it provide a web of convenience for busy customers?

Strategic thinking begins by questioning the status quo. If you’re selling gas and sundries, it’s hard to differentiate commodity products – but you can deliver a difference through time and convenience. That’s why we have seen gas stations turn into multipurpose convenience centers selling fresh coffee and hot snacks, complete with drive-thrus, ATMs, lotto centers and grocery sections. This evolution is even evident in the branding, with new logos such as ExxonMobil’s “On the Run” aiming to build brand equity in the corner-store sector.

If you don’t understand what your customers value, and how you solve their problems, then it’s hard to determine which assets and ideas will get your organization where it needs to go. Or as Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

Fortunately, it’s not that hard for organizations to rediscover their purpose and chart new paths. At Spyder Works, we’ve built a team of experienced business professionals who have helped their own organizations strategically expand their impact. In just the past year, we have helped clients find many ways to break through market clutter to achieve success:

  • Continuing an ambitious growth plan with a leading retailer to increase revenue by 50% in less than five years;
  • Beating a longstanding retail sales record for a mass consumer brand by a full 25% in only the 2nd year after launch;
  • Developing a targeted digital marketing strategy with one of Canada’s largest retailers that improved monthly sales performance by 20%;
  • Working with a financial-industry association to address the sector’s aging workforce with a platform that attracts new entrants and helps them build more fulfilling careers;
  • Designing and implementing a 12-month onboarding program that boosted employee effectiveness from Day 1;
  • Creating a holistic growth and transformation model, including quantitative and qualitative metrics and operational support, to help a client achieve its growth targets;
  • Combining journey mapping with customer insights to improve a national retailer’s overall customer experience;
  • Helping a wellness organization uncover and implement innovations in product, service and process.

These are just a handful of the benefits that accrue when companies figure out what paths to follow and how to navigate forks. With such skills, 2019 can be a year of courage, discipline and growth for any organization.

How to get started? Yogi Berra got it right again: “Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Don’t fight about it. Just try to get better.”

By Ken Tencer

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90percentRule

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