At a recent board meeting of a non-profit where I am a trustee, I asked if we should spend more time on the long-term strategy (5 to 10 years) for the organization. A fellow trustee held up his iPhone and said the device was barely thought of 10 years ago and look how it had changed everything. His concern: It was not a good use of our time to think about a strategy that far out. I answered that the iPhone was part of one person’s strategy 10 years ago and maybe even 30 years ago. He (Steve Jobs) might not have known what the final product would be, but he had a strategy to change the world through personal computing by putting the user first.
My fellow trustee is right: We can never know with any certainty what the future will be. But that does not absolve us from thinking about what we want our companies to be in that future. Put another way, is your company going to succeed in a changing world or be a victim of it? Or more importantly, will you and your company change the world?
Let’s use the iPhone as an example. Research in Motion was well ensconced at the top of the personal digital assistant space when the iPhone was introduced. Its Blackberry had dethroned the Palm Pilot (I think I still have mine in a closet somewhere) by effectively integrating phone, email, calendar and the personal computer. It was the darling of the business and entertainment world. But Apple added a better user internet experience and the availability of third-party applications to create even greater usefulness for the iPhone. Since then, RIM has been playing defense and watching its market share and profitability evaporate. You can debate whether the iPhone is revolutionary or evolutionary, but it delivered on Jobs’ strategy of creating products with elegant design and enhanced user experiences.
This was all part of Jobs’ goal to change the world. In John Scully’s book about his tenure as the CEO of Apple he told of how Jobs wooed him from Pepsi by asking if he wanted to sell sugared water the rest of his life or if he wanted to join Jobs and Apple and change the world? Given framing the choice like that, who could resist the offer to change the world?
Strategy sets a goal for where the company wants to be, but it does not lock in a specific course for getting there. Smart leaders know there are many ways to reach the goal and the path will change often during the journey. But being clear about the strategic goal serves as a beacon that keeps the company from straying too far without thinking about the consequences.
Is thinking about long-term strategy a waste of time? Only if the strategy is put in a draw to gather dust. But if it is used to guide decision making about people and investments in a changing world, it can lead to breakthroughs of the iPhone variety that actually change the world.