Ideas Made to Matter
How to create meaningful strategic priorities
Crowdsourcing a curated vertical to disrupt with authenticity. Facilitating a viral paradigm shift. Leveraging an SEO-optimized paradigm shift to aggregate with transparency.
What do these phrases mean? Absolutely nothing! They’re hollow buzzwords strung together by Donald Sull as part of the MIT Sloan Management Review Strategic Agility Project’s Buzzword Strategy Generator. Those terms sound sophisticated — but they’re really just linguistic carnival barkers, void of substance. Give the generator a spin, and you’ll see just how easy it is to concoct these jargon-filled word salads.
MIT Sloan senior lecturer Donald Sull offers organizations a way to avoid the buzzword trap. Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, he lays out the seven key qualities of an effective, executable strategy. His co-authors are Stefano Turconi of London Business School, and Charles Sull of CultureX and James Yoder of Simpli.fi.
Limit strategic priorities to a handful. Cap out at five. Reducing the number makes it easier for employees to understand and for executives to communicate throughout the organization. A streamlined, clear set of priorities also harnesses employees’ focus and prevents them from becoming overwhelmed.
Focus on mid-term objectives. The authors writer that mid-term objectives are a bridge between long-term aspirations and immediate needs. He proposes the “three to five in three to five” rule — three to five strategic priorities in that many years. See them through until the end; don’t swap them out for new ideas the following year as though they’re dispensable. They could lose credibility.
Pull toward the future. Basically, don’t rest on your laurels. Instead of reflecting on past successes and legacy business, focus on how to capture value going forward. Activities and achievements that have become routine and reliable don’t need to be prioritized at the highest level.
But innovation and change need attention. They require sustained effort and monitoring. Don’t prioritize business as usual over innovation — make sure there’s a mix.
Make the hard calls. Competing priorities are inevitable. Whittling them down forces leadership teams to zero in on their true objectives. Some priorities will lose, and that’s OK. Favoring too many objectives — or bundling them into one broad, unwieldy goal to avoid organizational conflict — undermines their effectiveness and confuses employees. But a thoughtful, streamlined priority list conveys urgency.
Address critical vulnerabilities. So you know it’s important to make hard calls. Now what? Address critical vulnerabilities. These are areas that are crucial for success — but also the ones most vulnerable to failure. For example, which objectives would decrease costs, increase customers, or drive new revenue streams? Now which of these might fall flat due to external or internal forces without sustained attention? Those objectives should take priority.
Provide concrete guidance. Avoid vague platitudes like those spewed by the Buzzword Generator. If you can’t guess the company or even the industry by reading them, they’re too vague. Sull compares American Airlines’ priorities to those of Southwest Airlines. American wanted to “look to the future.” Southwest planned for “continued growth of [their] Rapid Rewards program.” One summarizes an action and a goal; the other is a hazy aspiration that lacks guidance or metrics. Be like Southwest.
Align the top team. Finally, priorities shouldn’t conflict with one another or pull the organization in different directions, with various organizational factions jockeying for their preferred objectives. Instead, priorities should tell a cohesive story about the whole organization. Ignore this at your peril: When goals aren’t aligned, teams can silo and work at cross-purposes.
For more detail, read “Turning strategy into results” in MIT Sloan Management Review and explore all the work in The Strategic Agility Project. And apply to attend Closing the Gap Between Strategy and Execution, an MIT Sloan Executive Education course taught by Sull.