One of the best parts of my job as a strategy consultant is helping business leaders get new perspective on the challenges and goals they’re tackling.
Gathering information at the start of a strategy project is like putting together a puzzle with someone who’s feeding you a few pieces at a time. The more pieces they share, the more you can help arrange them to bring the picture into view.
When the puzzle’s done, it should represent a detailed map of their business. One that shows why the business exists, what it’s trying to achieve, and how the team will navigate that map to reach their goals — aka. Their Strategy.
The business leader is ultimately responsible for the final output of that puzzle, and part of the challenge they face is that there’s no perfect view of how it should look. The business leader has to decide what the final picture will look like while they’re building it.
They’ll have to make some assumptions about how certain pieces fit together. There will also be lots of opinions influencing the assembly process.
And because there’s no perfect solution they’re working toward they may not notice that some of the pieces are missing, leaving holes that can cause big problems down the line.
But the biggest challenge of all is that some of the pieces that leader needs to complete the puzzle aren’t just missing. They’re invisible.
What Are These Invisible Pieces?
So what does it mean to have invisible pieces? What do they represent?
A “piece” in this context, represents an essential element of the strategy puzzle you’re trying to complete. It could be related to any of the core areas of your business.
At Map & Fire, we use our Lean Strategy framework to define the following key areas that affect every business: Purpose, Customers, Competition, Offering, Brand, and Marketing.
Many of the essential pieces for this process are things the leaders of the company know very well. A lot of the time, leaders will have dug really deep into one or more of those core areas, but less so into others.
What’s interesting, though, is that invisible pieces (i.e. the elements you’re not aware of, have overlooked, or are incomplete) can lurk in areas you’ve explored deeply just as easily as the ones you’ve barely explored at all.
On top of that, there are different reasons for why they’re not visible to you. It’s a classic case of “not knowing what you don’t know.” But regardless of why you missed it, the common thread is that there are important elements of your business that you aren’t aware of.
Why Are the Pieces Invisible?
If you’ve ever been stuck while working on a complex challenge, you know that sometimes you just need to take a break and come back with fresh eyes. This can mean going for a walk, doing some exercise, or getting a decent night’s sleep.
But sometimes, you can get in a situation where you’re working on a problem so consistently and so deeply — and that’s so complex — that short breaks aren’t enough. This is the environment where pieces that might otherwise be obvious become invisible.
This invisibility is fueled by a couple key components:
- Familiarity: When given the choice, our brains prefer what’s familiarbecause it requires less effort than seeking out new information or solutions. Because of this, once we’ve satisfied our brains with an acceptable solution, we’re inclined to stick with it, even if it’s incomplete or needs improvement. Given that this process can happen subconsciously, unless you’re actively on the lookout for it, it may go completely unnoticed.
- Lens Limitations: No matter how smart and experienced you are, you’re still limited by your unique lens for viewing a challenge. A solution or opportunity that’s right under your nose may not get your attention because you can’t see it clearly through your particular lens. This limitation can be improved over time by expanding your knowledge base or actively disconfirming your assumptions. But that still may not be enough in the short term.
When you’re dealing with the day-to-day grind of your responsibilities, it’s really hard to find the time and energy to seek out new approaches. And sometimes you’re not even aware there’s an issue with what’s currently in place.
So, given these inherent limitations of our own ability to see invisible pieces, how do we go about finding them?
How Can I Find Those Pieces?
As the previous section highlights, because our own limitations are the cause of invisible pieces it’s really difficult to find them on your own. To help in your search, your best bet is to get an outside perspective.
To find a good puzzle-piece-finder, here are five key skills to consider:
- No Baggage: To get the freshest eyes possible, you’ll want someone with little to no baggage or preconceptions about your business.
- No Personal Agenda: To ensure an objective point-of-view — i.e. one that speaks to the interests of the business itself, without a personal slant — you need someone who’s opinion isn’t tainted (sometimes subconsciously) by their own wishes for the direction of the business.
- Diverse Experience: Someone who’s seen not just businesses in your industry but lots of others will be able to suggest new angles to old problems.
- Clear Structure: There’s no perfect framework for breaking down complex challenges, but you need something to ground the discussion. Attacking things in a structured way prevents you from going in circles and repeating the same thought processes that generated the holes in your puzzle.
- Blunt Honesty: If the person feels like they need to pull punches with their thoughts or feedback, you’re likely to leave key pieces left under rocks.
Looking at that list, you can quickly see why lots of the most readily available candidates to help — fellow team members, significant others, family, friends, and even investors — may be just as susceptible to the same issues of blindness that you are.
To be clear, all of the people mentioned above can and should be sources for advice and collaboration, they just may be limited in their ability to find those missing pieces of your strategy puzzle.
So, who’s left?
- Mentor: If you know an experienced mentor that can be a fantastic option. The main challenge may be the time they can commit will be hit or miss due to their own obligations.
- Consultant or Coach: These are folks that offer services specifically for this type of challenge. As outlined in the above list of skills, a good strategy consultant or coach is valuable both for the things they have (experience, structure, honesty) as well as the things they don’t have (baggage, personal agendas).
How Do I Know If They’ll Be Effective?
Whether you work with a consultant, mentor, coach, or anyone else, here’s what you’ll want to see from them if you expect to uncover those elusive puzzle pieces.
- Great Listener: Particularly at the start of a new engagement, they should be making you do most of the talking. It’s impossible to add meaningful contributions without having a good base to build on.
- Deep Questioner: It’s about asking questions that hit on the essential areas of your business, as well as asking key follow up questions to dig past the familiar, surface level responses.
- Clear Process: If you’re searching for missing pieces, you have to be systematic in the approach to make sure you cover all the bases.
- Cohesive Documentation: This may be the single most important piece of the process. A clear record of your strategic information allows you to be consistent with how you talk about it, allows you to share it with others, and allows you to improve upon it over time.
When you work with someone who can do all of those things, you’re bound to learn new things about your business.
With the right partner and a solid structure, you’ll start to see the holes where pieces are missing in your strategy and you’ll have a clear process to start filling them in.
If you want to start checking for missing pieces in your business strategy, try our free worksheet for defining your company’s Purpose. It’ll help you outline your Core Purpose, Values, Vision, and Big Goals for your business.
If you’ve thought about those things, but haven’t written them down yet, you might be surprised at how powerful going through that exercise can be.