A to B

‘We have a strategic plan: It’s called doing things.’
– Herb Kelleher

Enlisting people in collaborative efforts often entails a frustrating, if ultimately rewarding apprenticeship in some of life’s most essential, hyphenated adulting arts: sense-making, boundary-setting, cat-herding, minefield-negotiating, and, ultimately, aspiring to grace and humility-ing. 

During our formative years, we learn how we will be rewarded with, or deprived of, our parents’ attention. How to get our basic needs met. How to influence our peers. We gain basic insights about agency and reciprocity, laying down a foundational narrative for ‘How Stuff Gets Done in My World’.

Just as attachment styles developed in infancy influence our interactions later in life, early experiences in collaboration condition how we will approach group endeavors. 

We develop biases about strategy, leadership and implementation. Assumptions about how to get a team from A to B. With a nod to David Allen, we might call the sum of these biases, assumptions and narratives our Getting S*** Done Philosophy (GSDP). 

Here at +coordinates we are avid collectors of these frameworks, so, yes, please, feel free to share your personal s*** list with us in the comments below. 

Super Social

This peculiarly human capacity—incorporating and aligning the efforts of others—turns out to be our species’ superpower. Our superior collaboration skills put homo-sapiens on the map in the first place, simultaneously ensuring we would subsequently spend millennia fighting over it. 

Sure, developing opposable thumbs made us excellent tool makers. But it was using those same digits to form an ‘Are you OK?’ gesture that earned us dominion over our neanderthal cousins. We weren’t as large or strong as they were. But we were better at aligning our peers and forging collaboration.

While many other species can and do collaborate in spectacular ways, we remain among only a handful that can be described as ‘super-social’—animals who will routinely collaborate with individuals beyond their immediate kin—such as ants, bees, penguins, and Phish fans. Why such a short list? Because effective collaboration is hard.

We perform this magic trick daily, often barely registering when we have successfully aligned other people’s effort. But if you stop and think about it, these achievements are extraordinary. Cognitively, convincing four different couples to agree on the same restaurant or three different families to travel with you to the same destination remains a demanding challenge.

Now you want a thousand employees on three continents to line up and follow the steps on that flow chart of yours? Whoa Homo Sapiens. Not so fast. You have entered the truly complex realm of aligning a team or organization. And as anyone who has achieved genuine alignment at any scale will tell you, that’s never going to be easy.

It’s around this time that clients tend to arrive at our door, shredded flow chart in opposable-thumbed hand, often presenting one of three scenarios:

  • Maintaining focus has become increasingly elusive. They’ve reached a point in their trajectory where they need to revisit and resharpen the core promise that defines their organization’s purpose. 
  • They have a complex branding or strategy challenge on their hands. One that’s proving hard to wrestle to the mat. It might involve aligning extremely diverse stakeholders, or managing multiple, competing sub-brands, for example.
  • They’ve heard that we ‘do strategy differently, and are sufficiently intrigued by what they have heard to give us a shot.

Which brings us to a set of fundamental questions that +coordinates’ own GSDP must address. Questions that drew us to this line of work in the first place:

How do you create genuine focus?
What does effective
alignment look like?
tools bring a strategy to life?

Put more succinctly: What does it really take to get a team from A to B?

Strategy Cycles

Our GSDP is heavily influenced by the work of John Boyd. Boyd may not have been the first strategist to emphasize the need to cycle strategic disciplines, but he certainly took the concept to new heights. 

Observe, Orient, Decide & Act, the so called OODA Loop, is bold in ambition, stark in simplicity, and boundless in application. You can use it to plan and implement a picnic, or to design and refine a Presidential Campaign. I once saved my family $800 in luggage fees by going ‘full Boyd’ on an airline ticketing clerk (he left befuddled, but smiling, I promise). 

Just don’t fall into the trap of prioritizing speed over thoroughness in the execution of Boyd’s loop, or you’ll find one of his famous acolytes pulling deftly into your slipstream to upgrade your orientation. 

The Loop is a formidable tool. Supported by the full suite of Boyd’s insights, we’d defend OODA as the equivalent of strategy’s E=MC2. A beautifully simple equation, deeply grounded in biology and cultural anthropology, it distills the essence of what it takes to prevail in any domain.

But for our purposes we to like to tweak the loop a little, zeroing in on the component disciplines required to navigate and implement it effectively: Focus, Align, Engage, and Learn. 

Focus | Align | Engage | Learn

We think ‘good strategy’ should measurably improve our clients’ capacity to get from A to B by increasing their confidence and competence in these four strategic disciplines.

Focus: With a second hat-tip to John Boyd—we can define strategy as:

A technology we employ to focus and inform increasingly accurate matches between the mental maps we create of our world and the complex, emerging territory we must navigate to reach an objective. 

While planning is often an important component in a strategy cycle, a plan is simply one tool we may use in the design, implementation and ongoing refinement of a strategy.

Alignment: If focus is the discipline of getting the big ideas right, alignment involves generating buy in for our choices. 

Even the most seasoned, high-performing leaders routinely underestimate what it takes to generate buy-in for their strategies. To achieve alignment we need to deliver shared clarity of purpose and intent. We need decision support tools that help focus our limited resources; including bandwidth, morale and attention. In sum, generating genuine alignment is a heavy lift, requiring significant investment and attention.

Failing to recognize the importance of alignment can be catastrophic. We call the opposite of organizational alignment ‘organ-rejection’, a phenomenon which will quietly drag a strategy down a cul-de-sac and kill it stone dead.

Engage + Learn: ‘All failures represent a failure to anticipate, a failure to adapt, or a failure to learn.’ (Cohen & Gooch, Military Misfortunes) 

Other than the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, we are not aware of many organizations that took out pandemic insurance prior to 2020. It has become cliché to point out that we live in an unpredictable ‘VUCA’ (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, but remains true that the shelf life of today’s strategic plans and planning cycles is shorter than ever. 

While effective GSDP’s must always be matched to the dynamics and decision-making tempo of their domain, today most organizations need to embrace the almost constant cycling of learning, refinement and adaptation implied by this reality.

Our Toolkit

The +coordinates toolkit, developed over 25+ years of strategy engagements, includes a suite of ‘fast and light’ strategy tools, purpose built to increase our clients capacity to focus, align, act, engage and learn. We will be breaking down the component elements of the toolkit in future blogposts.

The GSD Clubhouse

Focus, Align, Engage & Learn. These are the primary components of the +coordinates GSDP, the basic framework informing our work and the tools we help clients develop to design, implement and refine their strategies. 

Join us in the GSD clubhouse. It says ‘Work in Progress’ on the door, from behind which you’ll hear the uniquely inspiring sound of entrepreneurs at play. They may call what they are doing ‘leading’, ‘putting a dent in the world’, or ‘living their dream’. You can call it whatever inspires you and your team.

We call it getting s***t done.