Strategy vs. Agility: Long-Term Strategy in an Agile Business World

Strategy is often synonymous with long-term planning and long-term planning is often viewed as stagnant, concrete, set in stone.

David Cancel just wrote his weekly Drift newsletter about the “pitfalls of planning,” saying, “Blindly following plans is the perfect recipe for stagnation. It closes you off to new ideas and sets you up to unfairly evaluate yourself (and your ideas).” Simon Sinek says, “following a plan is good for progress. Opportunity, however, usually exists off the plan.” Because of this, especially post-COVID, with the acceleration of technology, the volatility of market trends, and businesses needing to fuel innovation to get ahead, we see many approaching long-term strategy creation with hesitancy. The fact is that all of the above is true; when treated like stone tablets, strategy can be a lead weight that drowns you rather than the lighthouse that guides you.

The importance of long-term strategy has long been lauded, however. We know talent seeks out purpose in their work, which increases productivity, motivation, engagement, and loyalty. We also know that talent needs direction and alignment on what is most important to the organization for it to thrive and to reach or exceed desired outcomes.

An organization’s vision and long-term goals, along with clearly executable short-term goals, provide these necessary components for a high-performing business. David Cancel went on to say not to avoid plans, but “rather, think of plans as guides. Flexible, changeable, always shifting.”

The importance of long-term strategy has long been lauded, however. We know talent seeks out purpose in their work, which increases productivity, motivation, engagement, and loyalty. We also know that talent needs direction and alignment on what is most important to the organization for it to thrive and to reach or exceed desired outcomes.

An organization’s vision and long-term goals, along with clearly executable short-term goals, provide these necessary components for a high-performing business. David Cancel went on to say not to avoid plans, but “rather, think of plans as guides. Flexible, changeable, always shifting.”

So how do we balance strategy with the agility needed to compete in today’s marketplace?

Consider these three key components when creating your long-term strategy: make sure your vision is big enough to stand the test of time, build agility into your strategy, and focus your resources (talent, capital, and time) on the things that will truly differentiate you.

1. Make sure your vision is big enough to stand the test of time.

We are so often used to thinking about the day-to-day business that we become short-sighted when creating our vision. A great vision statement engages people in a way that energizes and unites them on common ground, like a team of climbers tackling Everest. Vision statements are meant to be bold and challenging, therefore avoid creating one you suspect has a probability of 100% success.

By rule of thumb, your vision statement should have a 20-50% chance of failure. A perfect example of an aspirational and BHAG vision is Sony. Sony created the following vision statements in 1954, shortly after the end of World War II:

  • We will create products that become pervasive around the world. 
  • We will be the first Japanese company to go into the American market and distribute directly. 
  • Fifty years from now our brand will be as well-known as any on Earth.

Because of the negative climate lingering in post-WWII America, there was a strong possibility Sony would not accomplish its vision, especially regarding entering the American market as a direct distributor. It’s probably safe to assume there were tremendous hurdles that Sony overcame to achieve this vision. But in risking the likelihood of failure, they’ve in turn dominated the entertainment electronics industry. Additionally, their vision was a long shot, literally. This wasn’t a vision that could be accomplished in 5 years or even 10 years. This was a vision that would take a lot of time, perseverance, and dedication to reach. Your vision should be your North Star. It is what keeps your eyes on and your feet walking toward the end goal.

1. Make sure your vision is big enough to stand the test of time.

We are so often used to thinking about the day-to-day business that we become short-sighted when creating our vision. A great vision statement engages people in a way that energizes and unites them on common ground, like a team of climbers tackling Everest. Vision statements are meant to be bold and challenging, therefore avoid creating one you suspect has a probability of 100% success. By rule of thumb, your vision statement should have a 20-50% chance of failure. A perfect example of an aspirational and BHAG vision is Sony. Sony created the following vision statements in 1954, shortly after the end of World War II:

  • We will create products that become pervasive around the world. 
  • We will be the first Japanese company to go into the American market and distribute directly. 
  • Fifty years from now our brand will be as well-known as any on Earth.

Because of the negative climate lingering in post-WWII America, there was a strong possibility Sony would not accomplish its vision, especially regarding entering the American market as a direct distributor. It’s probably safe to assume there were tremendous hurdles that Sony overcame to achieve this vision. But in risking the likelihood of failure, they’ve in turn dominated the entertainment electronics industry. Additionally, their vision was a long shot, literally. This wasn’t a vision that could be accomplished in 5 years or even 10 years. This was a vision that would take a lot of time, perseverance, and dedication to reach. Your vision should be your North Star. It is what keeps your eyes on and your feet walking toward the end goal.

2. Build agility into your strategy.

With a vision as broad as the one Sony created, they allowed themselves the space to be agile. How would they get to their vision? There were lots of paths they could take and I’m going to venture a guess they probably tried some paths that didn’t work out very well and had to try new ones. Just like there are multiple paths to get to the summit of a mountain, there are multiple ways to strategize reaching your vision.

Similar to what David Cancel said: make an executable plan, but use it as a guide and review it regularly. Use the plan as a living document and adjust it as necessary. Determine which variables will affect it and ensure you are monitoring and manipulating those variables consistently. When you come across an obstacle or roadblock, change course and rethink your plan, but don’t throw it out.

2. Build agility into your strategy.

With a vision as broad as the one Sony created, they allowed themselves the space to be agile. How would they get to their vision? There were lots of paths they could take and I’m going to venture a guess they probably tried some paths that didn’t work out very well and had to try new ones. Just like there are multiple paths to get to the summit of a mountain, there are multiple ways to strategize reaching your vision. Similar to what David Cancel said: make an executable plan, but use it as a guide and review it regularly. Use the plan as a living document and adjust it as necessary. Determine which variables will affect it and ensure you are monitoring and manipulating those variables consistently. When you come across an obstacle or roadblock, change course and rethink your plan, but don’t throw it out.

3. Focus your resources (talent, capital, and time) on the things that will truly differentiate you.

When thinking about how to make your strategy agile, ensure you are crystal clear on what areas of the market you will play in and what market or workplace trends will affect your strategy. This way you can focus your internal and external change initiatives on the things that will make the biggest impact in the marketplace or industry. 

For instance, technology is a big trend these days. Some say the onset of COVID accelerated technological advancements in business by 5 to 10 years. This, along with the subsequent labor shortages and product cost increases, has businesses focused on AI and robotics, along with other technological advancements to set them apart. So, looking at industry trends, competition in your industry, and what tech is needed within your organization to create the efficiencies that will help you compete now while getting you closer to your vision faster, would be a great use of resources.

Think similarly about your talent – what type of talent and expertise do you need to acquire for the future of your business? The main thing here is to prioritize what is important now to get you closer to your imagined future. These priorities will change with time, and that is where the agile part of your strategy comes into play. Conducting a SWOT analysis of your business in relation to the current market, using it as a way to identify the areas you should focus on in your strategy, and revisiting it on a regular cadence to determine where to go next is a simple and easy way to keep agile and focused.

3. Focus your resources (talent, capital, and time) on the things that will truly differentiate you.

When thinking about how to make your strategy agile, ensure you are crystal clear on what areas of the market you will play in and what market or workplace trends will affect your strategy. This way you can focus your internal and external change initiatives on the things that will make the biggest impact in the marketplace or industry. For instance, technology is a big trend these days. Some say the onset of COVID accelerated technological advancements in business by 5 to 10 years. This, along with the subsequent labor shortages and product cost increases, has businesses focused on AI and robotics, along with other technological advancements to set them apart. So, looking at industry trends, competition in your industry, and what tech is needed within your organization to create the efficiencies that will help you compete now while getting you closer to your vision faster, would be a great use of resources. Think similarly about your talent – what type of talent and expertise do you need to acquire for the future of your business? The main thing here is to prioritize what is important now to get you closer to your imagined future. These priorities will change with time, and that is where the agile part of your strategy comes into play. Conducting a SWOT analysis of your business in relation to the current market, using it as a way to identify the areas you should focus on in your strategy, and revisiting it on a regular cadence to determine where to go next is a simple and easy way to keep agile and focused.

When these three components are present within your long-range strategy, you will have one built on a solid foundation but agile enough to move as you need toward your vision.

You’ll also provide your workforce with direction and inspiration to drive their engagement, innovation, and motivation toward meaningful and long-lasting results. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to create an agile strategy for your specific business, reach out to us at contact@transcendbusiness.com.

I am a dynamic relationship builder who empowers our clients to maximize and engage talent throughout all levels of the organization, while honoring their own leadership strengths. Combining expertise in human behavior and leadership development, I use a structured, authentic approach enabling clients to unlock their most valuable gifts and talents to drive performance and business results beyond what they ever thought possible.

Jaci Reed's profile picture.

Jaci Reed

Senior Executive Coach

As a Senior Executive Coach and Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRM-SCP), I have more than a decade of experience coaching and consulting senior leaders and executives across various industries. I have worked closely with executives to lead high-level internal strategic initiatives in organizations both large and small, giving me an intimate understanding of the makeup of their internal functionality and the roadblocks they typically encounter.

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