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Simplicity is key.

May 21, 2013


But it’s not easy.

Scenario: You set out to make a list of the top 3 strategic initiatives and end up with 20. You just can’t help adding the rejects to the bottom of the list…or the little things. Just in case they make it. It makes everyone feel better to have them captured, so you keep them. But in fact, there’s nothing so demoralizing for the team as the list that never gets done. We need to stop thinking of it that way.

The top initiatives are just that. It doesn’t have to include the little things. The little things are the things we do everyday to support the big things.

Does your company excel at identifying the top few things? One company I worked for called it the “critical few initiatives”. It made it very clear, at all levels of the organization, how to make the right decision about what to focus on, everyday.

It’s not so different from having a clear brand position: once you have it, everyone can use it as a guiding light for behavior, decisions and how they articulate the voice of the brand and apply it to what they specifically do every day.

But why is it so hard to do? How do you do it well?

It’s hard because it requires sacrifice. You can’t do it all at once, with the resources you have. You have to know what’s really important. Startups do this everyday- they have a few good people laser-focused on a clear goal. So they get it done. I’ve been with big companies and little companies, and I can tell you that it’s not size that defines a clear business strategy- it’s courage. That’s right- it’s the courage to take a stand on what’s going to drive your business forward, rather than a mega  diner-sized menu that will have something for everyone, and nothing spectacular for anyone.

J.Crew does this extraordinarily well.

Mickey Drexler, in one of his recent features in Fast Company, says: “Simplicity is very difficult to achieve.” But he has done it- over the past 10 years, with Jenna Lyons as the extraordinary creative lead- they have completely reinvented one of America’s favorite brands. They have a vision, and it has paid off, big time- with Michelle Obama and Jessie Jackson (this Jessie, not the reverend), among many others, as devoted fans to the brand. Why? They don’t do just what’s expected. They keep it fresh and creative. And they don’t try to have something for everyone. Each collection has a point of view. It has become the single most coveted American fashion brand at an affordable price point. You don’t achieve that by being indecisive about your priorities.                                                                                      You can find links to Fast Company’s recent features on Mickey and Jenna, here.

Learning Agile Methodologies helped shape my thinking about how to keep it simple. It’s a flexible, yet highly structured way to prioritize and execute on an on-going basis. It requires decisive action and attention on a daily basis to remain focused. And you can still keep your wish list (your backlog), on the fringes to pull from when each new sprint planning meeting comes up. This isn’t a long term strategic planning tool- but it’s a great way to organize the work to support your key strategies. What it does for strategic planning is give you a better sense of how much time things take- how to structure the research around your plans and whether they’re achievable in the desired time period. It’s a great way to support your strategy company wide, and keep everyone focused.

But it all starts with keeping it simple. You have to start by defining the high level goals. And then constructing a plan of the things you need to have in place to get there. And then editing, editing, editing down the list to the things that REALLY matter. And then staying focused, every day, on those things.

It’s not easy, to plan to do less. But what I’ve found in the past year is that planning to do less actually empowers you to do more- both because you don’t have to rethink your priorities every single day, and because  you make a bigger impact with a few great things than with a zillion insignificant ones.

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