Why a strategy must be CARL




How often have you seen a new strategy being presented that painted a great vision of the future full of opportunities just waiting to be captured, and a few months down the line ending up as a PowerPoint file tucked away in internal servers and inboxes?

There are many how-to-do-strategy books, papers, blogs, etc. out there. Most of them good and useful. Still we struggle. Even when we apply the learnings and best practices we struggle. Somehow a new strategy once launched seems to slowly fade out in some strange and unnoticeable way. We all know it’s there, we think to know what to do, and still… we struggle.

My observation is that the big problem lies in the execution of the strategy. Making plans is easy, a good one takes time and a solid plan is a lot of hard work, but still doable. Putting it all into practice, well… No plan survives the first contact with reality, and then what!? That question often results in endless discussions. All the pains and sorrows that went into the making of the plan are back on the table. But there is an important question in front of this one: how do we actually know that our plan is not surviving its first contact with reality? How do we know we’re having effect in the first place and, ultimately, how do we know we have reached our goals?

These are open door questions, but often poorly answered, if at all. Take for example the one on reaching goals. Recently I had a discussion with a management team. Their goal was to become first in class within their technology-product-market combination. They felt great about this target. OK, I put in front of them, what exactly does being first in class mean? It is the first in class so there can only be one, right? How will you know that you have indeed become number 1 once you’ve done it? In addition, when you set yourself this goal it implies that today

you are not first in class, so who is? … Silence…

In my work I have setup a quick strategy quality check framework: CARL. A good strategy is Current, Actionable, tRaceable and Living.

The A-part is often OK. When you ask people most of them will answer that they know what to do. They are able to act. The traceability part is where the biggest gaps are. What are you going to measure and/or follow that allows you to know if and what progress you are making? This question is not about end results such as increase sales, market share, etc. This question is about all the steps that feed into such an end result. It is about knowing what effects the efforts you are putting in are having. Some of these may be objective measures, others more subjective. Sensing all should make you aware of what’s happening and provide the right input for decisions that may need to be taken because your plan is not surviving its contact with reality; its first contact, the second, third, and so on… This then feeds into the C-part. Plans are often not updated properly. There may be regular short/mid/long-term plan cycles, but these are often nothing more than ritual internal reporting dances. The consequence is that the strategy is not in sync with the current situation and doesn’t become alive, it never gets to the L-part.

Most of the times I do not get beyond the R-part of the CARL check. Yes there are targets. Yes these are measured, but mostly not in any meaningful and useful way, despite many people feeling great about it. And this brings me to the last bit of my story. A CARL strategy is about targets only in the second place. A CARL strategy is first and foremost about effects. Reaching a target is good because doing so has desirable effects. Stuff happens. A target that does not result in any effect is not a target worth pursuing. The same is true for all the steps you take before reaching your overall strategic target. So for every step you plan you need to ask the following question: what will happens because I reach that point? The knock-on answer to your answer is what to trace in your strategy execution.

Jan-Willem Boots is co-founder of Changing Games

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