Strategy lessons from septuagenarian mall-walkers.


I used to work at Asics many years ago, where the strategic direction was to focus on the serious athletic enthusiast. We made wonderful, relatively high-priced (and high-margin) shoes that addressed their needs. Unfortunately, we also wanted to chase the sales volume that major retailers like JC Penney and Kohl’s could provide. That required us to make low-priced, low margin shoes. Our designers and developers were overburdened by the need to produce great shoes for both enthusiasts and for, well, septuagenarian mall-walkers in Miami. That bifurcation of work made it impossible to handle all their responsibilities. It also confused them as to what our business strategy actually was. As a result, we missed deadlines, made product development errors, and didn’t deliver to either market terribly well.

It’s not exactly a Copernican insight to say that your strategy should match (sorry, I should use the all-important buzzword, “align” with) your daily work. If it doesn’t, you run a serious risk of overwhelming yourself and your people with pointless activity that leads nowhere—except to feelings of overwhelm, missed deadlines, and unmet commitments.

As I’ve written about before, what often manifests itself as a time management “problem” is actually a mismatch between your strategic direction and what you’re asking people to work on. Because people are being pulled in two or three different directions, they can’t get any of their important (i.e., strategically aligned) work done. They’re busy serving pretzels when they should be piloting the plane.

Asics wasn’t the only company in this boat, of course. According to data in The Strategy Focused Organization, 80% of businesses fail to accomplish their strategies because of poor execution. 65% percent don’t align budget with strategy. Less than 35% of mid-manager activity contributes directly to the execution of business strategy, and less than 10% of front-line employees can articulate the institution’s strategic imperatives.

The numbers may not have been exactly right, but that sure describes Asics when I was there: a whole bunch of activity not tied to the company’s strategy.

Next time you see overwhelmed staff and unconsummated strategy, consider those “problems” as symptoms. The real problem—the root cause—may very well be strategy that’s neither clearly defined nor clearly articulated.

At Asics, we made the tough decision to adjust our product line to match our espoused strategy. We dropped the bottom end of our product line—saying goodbye to a sizable chunk of revenue and earning the rather considerable wrath of our sales reps. It sure hurt for awhile. But it freed up our designers and developers to do the right work, and in the long run it positioned us to build a truly sustainable business that leveraged our core strengths. Three years later we had regained all the lost sales and built a rock-solid position at the high-end of the market.

Who are your septuagenarian mall-walker customers? Bringing clarity at the top level leads to focused action at the front line. And that’s your job.

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