As I continue to work with companies, discussion business plans and strategies, I have realized I have an aversion to the word “could”. I am hearing it more and more, especially as economic times get tougher and and more companies are rethinking their business strategy.
The problem is that I am hearing it at the point in the discussion when executives need to define their path forward. Strategy is all about making clear choices, then executing well on them. The strategy is the strategy until there is new information that require a change in direction and a new strategy.
There is no room for the word “could” in the definition of strategy. In fact, the use of the word signals to me a lack of strategy, a failure to make clear choices, because it leaves many pathways open for consideration. It is difficult for a company to execute effectively and efficiently on a strategy that has multiple pathways. Just because a product “could do this function” or a company “could go in this direction” does not mean it should.
With that said, there are still good applications for the use of “could” in the strategy process:
- It is necessary to open up new options and possibilities in the brainstorming or idea phase. What could the company build? What go-to-market approaches could they follow? But once the brainstorming is done, it is time to close down the number of possibilities.
- It is often helpful to consider what external events could happen over the next few years – in the areas of competitive moves, economy, customer tastes, or technology developments – to ensure the company has a response to these events. But each of these are external factors, rather than undecided choices for the company.
- It is fine within limits to keep some options open for further down the road in the strategy. For example, it is fine to use “could” to define several exit options for the company 3-5 years down the road. Lots can happen in that time, and it is less necessary to nail down the specifics right up front. But watch out for applying this logic to choices in the next 6 months or a year, because every option left open has a cost in execution.
Listen to the discussions in your business planning sessions. Are you comfortable with how the word “could” is used? Or do you need to put a ban on the word to force some important choices about your direction?