Strategic Flexibility Requires ‘Primacy of Purpose’

By Mike Figliuolo

There’s an old Army saying that goes, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” (I’m sure some navy or marine guy out there will attribute this comment to their branch of service but to be clear, it came from the Army … well, actually it came from Helmuth von Motltke but his version was much less pithy. Gotta love his helmet though … ).

This principle holds true in business as well. You can put together the mother of all PowerPoint presentations, make massive strat plan binders for the board of directors or the heads of your business unit, create Excel models that cause the lights to dim when you run them and lay out huge project plans in MS Project. The thing is, as soon as you’ve briefed your plan, it’s irrelevant.

The world has changed. Oil spikes; consumer sentiment. A presidential election. New regulations. Disruptive technologies and even more disruptive competitors. Not to mention natural churn in the labor markets.

In these changing times, it’s easy to get “off strategy” and chase things that seem important. Unfortunately, you can end up behaving like a puppy in a park. (Ever seen a puppy in a park? They chase EVERYTHING that looks interesting.)

The only thing that can save you and keep you “on strategy” is something called “primacy of purpose.” Primacy of purpose is rooted in a mindset that you have to provide guidance on where you want to go but not always how to get there. Adopting this mindset will enable your organization to be infinitely more flexible and help them quickly spot new opportunities that are “on strategy,” as well as solve crises with faster decision-making “rights.” Indulge me while I explain using a military example.

Let’s say your battalion’s orders are to watch the north side of the convoy route and prevent enemies from attacking your convoy from the north. You’re blithely tooling along the road and, surprise!, the attack comes from the south. Now, remember, the battalion has been given orders to watch the NORTH side. They can achieve their stated objective by preventing attack from the north. Even if the convoy is destroyed by the attack from the south, the battalion has achieved its task-oriented mission. Sure, this is an exaggerated example, but I’m relating it for training purposes.

Now, let’s look at a battalion that has “primacy of purpose” in contrast to the task-oriented one above.

The purpose-focused battalion is given orders to protect the convoy from attack so it can resupply the front-line troops. The battalion is told the attack will likely come from the north but their primary purpose is to guard the convoy. Now when the attack comes from the south, what happens? Of course — the battalion will protect the southern flank, destroy the enemy, and protect the convoy. By being “purpose” focused versus “task” focused, they have more freedom to make decisions and achieve the true goals.

Hopefully you’re seeing the application of this mindset to the business world. Do you give your organization tasks or are they given a purpose? If they’re given tasks, they’ll comply and perform the tasks. If they’re given a purpose, they have freedom to make decisions to achieve said goal. Their roles are more fulfilling; they’re more empowered, and the likelihood of achieving your purpose goes up dramatically.

If you tell your team to create new products using new formulations coming out of your R&D group, they’ll do just that (even if R&D has nothing cool and innovative to offer). If, instead, the team knows its purpose is to find innovative new products your customers will buy by the bucketload, they might seek out acquisitions, go to other business units to collaborate on new offerings, etc. Primacy of purpose creates new degrees of freedom and helps ensure the team focuses on what REALLY matters — the end result you desire.

Give them a purpose and let them surprise you with their creativity. They’ll succeed more often and be happier in the process of doing so.

Mike Figliuolo is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Dec 12, 2011

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