"Most people put the cart before the horse, which is an interesting way to go through life. They approach everything directly. In Zen we approach everything backwards or inside out."

- Author: Frederick Lenz

So this blog is about strategy. But I’m not going to bore you with corporate cobblers. Instead, I’m going to give you a very ‘on the ground floor’ take on it that will hopefully provide you with an approach to strategising in any scenario, that doesn’t tax you too heavily.

First of all it’s important to recognise why actually having a strategy is so important…

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu

There are literally thousands of quotes about strategy and why it’s important, but I love quoting old Chinese dudes, so Sun Tzu will have to do. What he’s saying here is that you actually need a strategic plan, because without one, there is an overwhelming possibility that you’ll end up being defeated by the challenges before you. These days I cut those who suggest this isn’t true virtually no slack. I have experienced a huge variety of situations where having no strategy results in total capitulation.

So why on earth would anyone NOT have a strategy? To keep it simple and by no means exhaustive:

  • Laziness
  • Egoism
  • Conflicted Interests
  • Ignorance
  • Hubris
  • Fear

I think you get the picture. Most of the reasons that people fail to form and implement a strategy are personal reasons. Whether they are real or imagined inadequacies, people tend to shy away from that most dangerous and terrifying of tasks – WRITING DOWN A STRATEGY – because it could open them up to criticism.

So how do horses and carts come into this?

The Carthorse Handler

The Carthorse Handler is YOU. The human being, allegedly clever and capable enough to guide the horse and the cart to new destinations in a meaningful way. Yet often, the handler is the weakest link in the whole operation. Why is that?

Well, the cart is inanimate and unthinking, the horse does what horses do and will generally be content with a nosebag, it’s the human that thinks deeply; makes mistakes, and get easily distracted. But most of all, it’s the human that has consistent existential crises. Asking fun questions like “What am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

They’re not stupid questions however, when it comes to organisational strategy. If you dont know what you are, why you do what you do, who you’re doing it for, and a plethora of other questions you will continue to have an unhelpful relationship with your horse, and be perpetually confused by your cart. Not to mention you’ll be constantly asking “Whose dog is that sitting on the back, and have they provided doggy bags?”

If you dont know WHO YOU ARE, you cannot create an effective strategy, let alone implement one. In the case of the Carthorse Handler above, he needs to ask himself:

  • Why he wants to transport people in his cart? Is it fun? Does it pay well? Is he saving the planet? Does Dobby the Carthorse need a purpose in life? Believe it or not, the why is often more important than the how, because it decides priority on what happens in your efforts. For example: Should I make a strategy first?
  • Am I doing this as a second income next to shining the factory owners shoes, or am I going to BECOME the factory owner after scaling my cart business with a sneaky yet brilliant pyramid scheme? Operating an organisation that cannot, or WILL NOT scale, is a very different proposition to one that is designed to, or able to scale. This should be a purposeful decision. Do I choose the lifestyle? Or do I choose to become a full on entrepreneur and the far sight that entails?
  • At what point will I have ‘succeeded’? What is the measure of my success, and when do I want to get out of it and do something else? (We can only assume that guiding a Carthorse can have only a limited amount of life opportunities.)

I write flippantly, but the seriousness is still here. Without knowing why you are doing what you are doing, and what you want to be whilst obtaining what you want, any strategy borne out of this will be ill-fitting and inevitably orphaned. KNOW WHAT YOU ARE BEFORE WRITING A STRATEGY.

The Carthorse

This is the bit that most people overlook, or struggle with. Mainly because many people have not considered what a carthorse actually is. The Carthorse is the beating heart, the powerhouse, the value-adding magic of your organisation.

I can hear product managers and marketers everywhere suffering excruciating pain because their heads have exploded. Yes comrades, your product or service is important, but nothing on the processes, tools and infrastructure that help you deliver them. Anyone can create an awesome service, or design a funky product. Yet it seems only the most boring, banal or dedicated amongst us focus on the ‘functioning of the organisation’ as the keystone of your product or service. Why is that?

Well, it’s really simple. Procedure, processes, infrastructure, they don’t conjure up that word: SEXY. Buiding a bulletproof prospecting system isn’t sexy. Putting in place a process for great customer service doesn’t make you want to run through the streets yelling in glee. Spending months building a kick-ass CRM or ERP doesn’t make most people sit up and go… “WOW!”

But think about it a bit more clearly, and the truth comes out. If you neglect your horse by not shoeing it regularly, not keeping its tack in good order, feeding it crap, not worming it, giving it no love, and generally ignoring it, your horse is going to end up lame or worse… GLUE.

This means that you have a cart and a man – and I tell you now, pulling a cart by hand with two ungrateful aristocrats in the back is no fun. Especially if they have a crop… Neglect your hard-working horse, the processes, systems, procedures and infrastructure of your organisation at your peril, because you dont have a strategy without them.

Give them time, invest in them heavily, constantly improve them, and ensure they remain a central commitment of your time. They’ll pay you back in spades.

When you formulate your strategy, give serious consideration to the intellectual and practical infrastructure you’re going to build to deliver it. These are the literal sinews of your organisation, and should be a central pillar of your strategy.

The Cart

As you may have guessed, The Cart is your product or service. You can make it big, small, blue, black, funky, boring, futuristic, basic, rough, smooth… whatever you like. The Cart is entirely under your control, and can be shaped to your whim.

So how annoyed will you be when you find out that your horse is too weak or knackered to pull it, and your cart handler is so clueless as to how to get it all sorted that your Horse & Cart business just sits there like a glorified road block?

Pretty annoyed I’d guess.

Without ‘Gilding the Lily’, there is a simple way to avoid this. You put the Carthorse Handler, and The Carthorse first. Yes I know it sounds trite, but hear me out.

Work on YOU. What are you? Why are you doing what you are doing? Where should you be doing it? When should you be doing it? Do you need to improve or change yourself in some way to be a good Carthorse Handler?

Answer these questions and more, and you’ll know what kind of cart you need to do the job, as well as whether or not your horse will currently be able to pull it.

Then, you can go about getting the right Carthorse in play. Do you need to improve it? Does it need better tack? Do you need to put some sugar cubes in Dobby’s mush? Does Dobby need a hug? Once you can handle your Carthorse, you’ll then know what it can cope with Cart-wise.

Only then, should you go about designing or purchasing your Cart… your product or your service.

I see EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. organisations getting this wrong. The obsession with product or service is based in ego, short-sightedness and a lack of contemporary education about how to operate an organisation or business.

But mostly, it’s a blank refusal to look inwards, and to understand our own strengths and weaknesses honestly. Because everyone loves introspection and a long hard look in the mirror… right?

In Summary

Be self-aware enough to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and dont let your ego or your past trauma’s blind you to the reality of your situation. When it comes to you and your organisation ask:

“WHAT AM I?”

Because nobody else will ask. They’ll all be looking at you in utter confusion as the organisation you’re trying to build will be a knackered old nag, with a badly paired cart, and a handler who is utterly lost and confused. It’ll go nowhere fast, and you’ll lose a lot of money and impetus. Not to mention you’ll own a dead horse and a wonky cart that nobody will get in.

The next questions to ask are:

“WHO IS THE AVATAR, AND HOW DO I HELP THEM?”

No, not the blue cat people – these are the cardboard cut-outs with guide sheets that tell you everything you need to know about the people handing over cash for whatever you’re giving them. You need to know everything about them – and most importantly, how and why what you do makes their lives better in some way. Once you know, you can breed your Carthorse to ensure these things happen, and then get your Cart sorted out.

We’ll discuss what goes into designing and building your cart another time. I might even do a video discussion with Lesley Brown on that one…

DONT NEGLECT YOUR HORSE!