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When life gives you lemons, think like Juan José Méndez Fernández

Image of cyclist with one leg and one arm with the caption Don't tell me you can't

Juan José Méndez Fernández is a cyclist from the Catalan region of Spain. He has competed in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Paralympics.

It was this picture with the caption "Don't tell me you can't" that caught my eye. What an inspiration!

My mind immediately asks: what if he falls over - he has no way to brace his fall? Surely there are easier sports for a man with only one leg and one arm?

But I guess that is the point. For whatever reason, he wanted to be a cyclist. And he didn't let what most of us would consider almost insurmountable limitations stop him. He adapted, and he succeeded.

Lessons for business strategy

Of course, I quickly moved on to consider what the lessons from this are in business strategy.

In business strategy, it is important to start from a balanced and realistic analysis of your current situation. There is no point in sugar-coating things. I am sure Juan did not start by simply assuming he was just like all of the other cyclists. I am sure he started by realising that he was different. And that he then adjusted his training plan accordingly and found someone to help him get onto the bike and upright, etc.

So too, in business strategy, we recognise weaknesses and threats alongside strengths and opportunities in a SWOT Analysis when developing strategy. And we recognise risks and issues in a RAID Log when executing it.

You can categorise these negative factors in strategy development and execution using a simple matrix:

Be optimistically realistic

Someone once accused me of being too pessimistic because of the attention I pay to weaknesses, threats, risks and issues. It seems, sometimes, that the world only wants optimists. But I counter that the world needs neither pessimists nor optimists but only realists; that by paying sufficient attention to weaknesses, threats, risks and issues you are able to succeed despite them - or even, if you are really clever, because of them.

Unfortunately, the literature plays to unrealistic optimism. People focus on success - what worked - and forget about all the difficulties and challenges along the way. Failures, and the lessons learned, fall by the wayside.

But being aware of weaknesses, threats, risks and opportunities is only the first step. What do you do about them?

Dealing with Weaknesses in Strategy Development

  1. Strengthen your weaknesses. If your organisation is weak at something you can address this directly. You can train existing staff, hire new staff, improve existing or develop new processes, upgrade equipment, move to a better location, undertake research, etc.
  2. Partner with someone who has strengths where you are weak. You don't have to go it alone. A partnership could work especially well if you can find a partner who is strong where you are weak and weak where you are strong.
  3. Avoid competing in areas where those weaknesses matter most. For example, if you lack retail marketing capability, stick to wholesaling or B2B markets; if you can't manufacture at volume, find a niche; segment your market and focus on those customers who value what you are good at more highly than what you're not good at.
  4. Take advantage of your weakness. When Spencer Silver was doing laboratory research into how to make stronger adhesives, he accidentally discovered a very weak adhesive. Instead of writing it off as a failure, he invented the Post-it note, where the weakness of the adhesive is its very strength.

Dealing with Threats in Strategy Development

  1. Monitor your threats. Make sure you have systems in place to monitor your threats as they evolve and to communicate that information to the appropriate people in the organisation.
  2. Neutralise threats. Consider what steps you could take to prevent threats from materialising. For example, in the case of a regulatory or political threat, could lobbying help to reduce the likelihood or impact of the worst possible outcomes?
  3. Prepare yourself. Take steps to prepare yourself for the possibility that the threat turns bad. For example, if it is a technological threat, start to research how it works. If it is an environmental threat, start investing now in greener options.
  4. Map out your scenarios. Scenarios are an effective way of dealing with high levels of uncertainty (whether positive or negative). See also: Scenario Planning for Business Strategy
  5. Develop your strategy assuming the threat materialises. If the likelihood of it happening is more certain, you can simply develop your strategy around the assumption that the threat has materialised - treat the threat as if it were a weakness, and proceed as outlined above.
  6. Adapt. If the threat emerges differently to what you anticipated, at some point you have to change your strategy. Whether it is a small tweak, or a full pivot to a completely different strategy, don't be afraid to change. History is littered with failed businesses who stuck doggedly to their plans when all the evidence suggested that change was required.

Dealing with Risks in Strategy Execution

Dealing with risks in strategy execution is, in many ways, similar to dealing with threats in strategy development.

  1. Monitor your risks. Risks are, by definition, things that might go wrong, but have not yet gone wrong. So the first step is to actively monitor them. What indicators or signals might suggest that the risk is either increasingly or decreasingly likely to happen? Are you equipped to detect subtle changes in those indicators and signals, to communicate those changes to the key decision makers and to respond rapidly to material changes?
  2. Mitigate your risks. What can you do to reduce the likelihood that a risk does happen, or the impact on your organisation when it does? What safeguards can you build?
  3. Avoid your risks: Sometimes a risk is simply too great, and you need to come up with an alternative, less risky solution.

Dealing with Issues in Strategy Execution

An issue, as we know, is a risk that has happened.

  1. Escalate the issue: The first thing to do is to make sure everyone knows that the issue has occurred.
  2. Solve the problem: Can you, or someone else in your organisation (see the previous step) fix whatever it is that has gone wrong? (This is often referred to as remediation.)
  3. Go back to the drawing board: Issues are seldom a reason to go back and revise your entire strategy, but they are often a reason to go back and change your tactics for execution. Don't stick doggedly to your plan, as if the issue has not arisen. Can you work around the issue?

Finally, if you ever find people getting too focused on the negatives in your strategy, remember the saying:

The people who think it can't be done should get out of the way of the people doing it.
Source unknown. 

PS: I could not find a proper source for the original image. If you know who made it, please drop me a note in the comments below so that I can give proper credit.

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