Even the most successful, intelligent, and experienced people can lose focus on their strategic direction, especially when success doesn’t come as quickly as they’d like. Sometimes, people succumb to the siren call of a new idea, leading to what Dorie Clark calls “strategic whiplash.” In her newly published book The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term world, she describes how people are lured into abandoning one strategy in favor of a new idea and how to know whether a change is needed or if persistence is a better path.
Successful people are persistent.
It can be surprisingly difficult to know if a strategic direction is bad or weak implementation is to blame for lackluster results. Assessing the value of a strategy when a leader is amidst the hard work of execution is not merely an intellectual activity. It is emotional because fear sets in when results aren’t as expected.
David, president of a large division, was known for strategic whiplash, which earned him many unflattering nicknames. Bright shiny objects were his specialty; persistence was not. At his core, David was afraid that his company’s success relied on a business model that competitors would eventually challenge. He was right about the future marketplace but ineffective in building a strategy to move his company ahead. Instead, he dealt with his fear by keeping a frantic schedule. Always looking for the magic bullet, he had a constant flow of people into his office and frequently asked, “What’s the next big thing?”
Busyness is one way to avoid doing what is essential. Setting aside time to think is easy to avoid in the crush of back-to-back meetings and constant intrusions. Strategic thinking can seem like doing nothing, causing almost unbearable discomfort, especially when people realize they don’t have a good strategy. David couldn’t bring himself to do the work of strategic thinking, he reacted instead.
Clark says the quality that distinguishes her successful clients from those who succumb to strategic whiplash is persistence. Fortunately, she doesn’t leave us wondering how to avoid leaping from one idea to the next. Instead, she names three essential ingredients:
1. Don’t just dream. Scope out what it will take to reach the goal. Digging into what lies between what is true now and the goal requires more than a cursory understanding. Some people get stalled at this point because it can be like staring across unknown territory. However, Clark says, “For 98% of the things we want, someone has walked the path.”
While it may not be possible or advisable to copy what others do, studying successful people and organizations can show us a process, some of the steps, and even help us understand how long it took. This brings a dimension of reality that can bust apart the image that other people succeed through magic and achieve success overnight.
2. Select advisors whom you can trust when you can’t trust yourself. Assuming the direction is solid, it helps to have advisors who have some distance. Distance allows people to put setbacks in context and see workarounds that can be hard to spot for those who are more involved.
However, advisors need to have two qualities to be of greatest value: 1. They need to sincerely want you to succeed and, 2. They need to have good judgment and sufficient expertise for your circumstance.
Unfortunately, in David’s situation, he had molded and rewarded politeness in the extreme. As a result, his executive team had learned to nod and agree with his big ideas but ignored him in practice. His team did not want him to succeed and even though they could give good advice, no one was willing. When the CEO finally removed David, not a single member of his team was unhappy.
3. Look for raindrops. Often when starting a new venture, people have an aspirational view of success. Clients frequently tell me things like, “I want Oprah to call,” or “I want to be on Power Lunch.” Great! Of course, intelligent people know that neither a producer for Oprah nor CNBC is likely to call tomorrow. They call people whose work is exciting and who are relatively easy to find.
While people are on the way to their goals, it’s helpful to recognize and give themselves credit for more minor, interim successes, what Clark calls raindrops. For example, Oprah calling is a full-on rainstorm of evidence that you and your work are exciting. However, waiting for such big events before allowing any acknowledge of progress isn’t sustainable.
A few interim measures to consider could be:
Growth in the number of people who “opt-in” for regular communication
The number of times you appear on a podcast or in the media
The number of times they receive a referral from a highly placed individual
Growth in revenue from working with ideal clients
Instead of brushing off small things, notice them and recognize they are signals. The more persistent people are the more data they have to decide what to keep doing and what needs to change. If you have done a good job of scoping, have reliable and supportive advisors, and have cultivated the habit of looking for raindrops, you’ll be on the way.