Navigating the Storm – Lessons from an Old Sea Captain

strategy execution

As a strategist, I like the simplicity of this quote: “The old sailors steered by the stars, not to get there, but to keep a steady course.” Today, we rely so heavily upon GPS that we look down at our devices to navigate and few remember how to navigate by looking up at the stars. Celestial navigation uses a celestial body, such as Polaris (the North Star) as a focal point. Polaris appears to stand still with the other stars circling around it during the night. By using the North Star as a focal point, sailors can chart a course to their destination and continuously assess their current location and progress, regardless of how the other stars seem to spin around them in the night sky.

Business leaders, like sea captains, are chartered to guide their organization to make steady progress towards a destination or goal. Captains of industry define their North Star and rely upon it to navigate despite being buffeted by operational forces that can cause them to temporarily change direction, much as a sailor will tack in response to wind direction during the day or be blown temporarily off course by a storm.

An organization typically charts a course of intermediate objectives and goals to achieve along the way to its destination. This is, in general terms, the purpose of a strategic plan. This may seem simple, but it is shocking to see how many organizations spend valuable resources to select a North Star and chart a course, yet fail in strategy execution.

There are many reasons for failure to execute but another old quote encapsulates all the various reasons into one simple explanation: “No plan survives first contact.” You may have a perfect plan, on paper, but it won’t be executed in a vacuum. The forces that confront a business can be as fickle as the wind and weather. What if there are changes in market forces, competition, technology, or innovation and the business must adapt its product or its business model? Suddenly these operational changes will take priority. Or what if an opportunity presents itself for the business to make a quick, but unexpected, move such as acquiring another company to help it augment its capacity or value chain? And let’s not forget the human factor – the people you are relying upon to execute will make daily tactical decisions that may or may not align with the bigger objectives. So even though a strategic plan is typically laid out as a linear progression from current state to desired future state with clearly stated objectives by which to navigate, the actual execution of strategy often takes many detours.

As a business leader, it is important to frequently look up to assess the big picture – are you making progress toward your North Star? Sea captains look up daily. How often do you look up? Do you make course corrections after necessary operational actions took you away from your planned route? How often do you consider whether your destination itself may need to change? And how easy is it to lay out a new course and ensure your crew understands?

Too often, I’ve seen business leaders struggle to assess overall progress or to effectively choose an altered course due to a lack of proper tools. Ancient mariners used sextants, compasses, and telescopes and modern sailors have added satellites and GPS to the toolbox so they are no longer dependent on a clear night sky to navigate. Today, a business leader is, at a serious disadvantage without the proper tools to dynamically connect strategy to operations so he/she always has clear sight of the destination while dealing with (or taking advantage of) operational realities. When there is no line of sight between operations and strategy, operational urgency wins the battle for attention and, once again, there is a failure to execute the strategy. Corporater empowers business leaders with the tools and information to manage performance – operational and strategic.