“We need a sidewalk” – strategy is the ultimate reminder of why we do what we do

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If the goal is profit, then strategy is the collection of specific initiatives to achieve that outcome...

Shortly after Disneyland opened its magical gates to the public for the first time, panicked groundskeepers reportedly approached Walt Disney all in a dither. Their concern? Patrons without fail tromped through one particular flower bed on their giddy sojourn from Main Street to Tomorrowland. The gardeners’ solution? Erect a decorative-but-impenetrable fence to protect the landscaping and redirect the crowds.

Uncle Walt’s response? “We don’t need a fence there. We need a sidewalk.”

I suspect we’ve all worked alongside colleagues like these well-meaning but misguided caretakers. Heck, you may find yourself being one of these obstructionist types, thinking the silo you inhabit needs defending at all costs. And that is the genius in Walt Disney’s response. In one deftly pragmatic, folksy, customer-centric quip, he reminded his staff that the turf isn’t theirs to defend; it belongs squarely to the market forces they are there to serve.

Walt Disney ... reminded his staff that the turf isn’t theirs to defend; it belongs squarely to the market forces they are there to serve. 

Business is “the practice of making one's living by engaging in commerce.” A business exists to make money. We sometimes forget that as we buzz from meeting to meeting, cubicle to cubicle, water cooler to Keurig machine.

Whether a non-profit or a professional services corporation, a retailer or a manufacturer, the bottom line is the final arbiter of success. The organization’s mission may dictate that profits go back into the community via reinvestment or that they end up in the hands of shareholders or get paid out to equity partners, but the raison d’etre of business is the almighty dollar.

This is where strategy comes in

If the goal is profit, then strategy is the collection of specific initiatives to achieve that outcome via market share growth, new product development, customer satisfaction, new client acquisition, and so on. Strategy answers the question “what problem(s) are we trying to solve?” and, like Walt’s sidewalk, stops cold the territorial nitpicking that can lead an organization from focus to folly.

That strip of concrete was not strategy in and of itself. That is also where we often go awry. Accomplishing a task isn’t strategy. It’s, well, accomplishing a task. In the doing (and the minutiae) that accompanies such activity, we can often forget the purpose. These questions must remain before us in any business environment: why are we pursuing a particular project, what will it do for the organization, and how are we measuring its impact?

Strategy is the framework that defines the daily activity of a company, centering everyone on short- and long-range goals.

Strategy is the framework that defines the daily activity of a company, centering everyone on short- and long-range goals. Walt’s sidewalk is a project consistent with the strategy of Disneyland. Offer patrons escapist fantasy to forget their daily troubles and embrace their every whim. In turn, as they abandon worldly concerns, Disneyland’s guests will exuberantly empty their wallets at the churro stands and sunglasses kiosks and merchandise huts conveniently located every ten feet. And these happy souls will return again and again and again, ensuring short- and long-term revenue streams.

A fence around the flowers? Reminds guests of their cranky neighbor who tells them they are running their sprinkler too much or that they need to trim their hedges. A sidewalk? A passage to fun, one which the customers demanded by voting with their feet (quite literally).

Strategy may be developed by consensus (but probably not). More often, it is the result of strong leadership, applying market analysis and using data to refine a gut instinct about what consumers desire … or, better yet, will desire.

However, that strategy must not remain locked in an ivory tower (or executive washroom).

Strategy must be communicated through the rank and file via internal newsletters, town halls, video messaging, social media, and anywhere else you can capture the eyes and ears of your colleagues. Messaging should explain the what and the why of your corporate strategy as well as where staff may find it evidenced – services, marketing messages, product offerings.

Most important, strategy should be translated into each colleagues’ performance goals, reinforced via annual reviews, pay raises and bonuses. In a highly functioning company where strategy has been openly shared and clearly exemplified, you should be able to ask any member of the team how their job impacts the organization’s goals and get a solid answer.

In other words, you’ll end up with a lot more sidewalks than fences.

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[Roy Sexton has led strategic planning and marketing efforts for nearly twenty years in a number of industries, including health care, legal services, and fund raising. He has worked at Wabash College, Deloitte Consulting, Beaumont/Oakwood Healthcare, and Trott Law, P.C. He is currently Regional Director of Marketing for the St. Joe’s Medical Group.]


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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