Just as “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (George Box), I’d like to suggest that “All metaphors are oversimplified, but some are quite helpful“.
Archery, darts, and other target metaphors are frequently used in strategy discussions e.g.
“Hitting our target”
“Missed our target”
“Ready, Fire, Aim” (criticism)
Strategic targets are set as part of the strategic planning process, usually as a means by which to determine whether goals have been achieved. These targets are sometimes called Indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
The header image for this post reflects on this ‘archery’ metaphor to seek insights into strategic goal development and execution. While interpretations and circumstances can differ, when metaphors are used often it is worth examining how these mini-stories, or ‘narratives’, inform our approach to a key governance activity.
Confusing ‘means’ and ‘ends’
I have often found that directors have difficulty in framing goal statements, and that they are too ready to accept a goal which is actually an action or activity by which an ‘unstated goal’ may be achieved e.g. to publish updated information resources for members/clients. Using this example, the goal is to enhance member/client response or decision-making capacity, and the means to that end is to update information resources in a highly engaging manner.
Where a goal can be simply reported as ‘done’, and offers no qualitative or quantitative metric by which to judge how effectively it was achieved, it is more likely to be a ‘means’ than an ‘end’. Saying, for example, that web materials were updated and then viewed by 3000 members/clients, would not really tell us whether we had achieved the underlying goal of enhancing response or decision-making capacity.
Strategic goals need to be expressed in terms of the outcomes and impact sought, to allow the identification and use of relevant indicators of success. Hitting a target in itself is necessary, but not sufficient. Having hit a quantitative target, we also need to know what impact the achievement had and how well we achieved our intended outcome.
Bringing the future into the present
Sports psychologists help athletes to achieve peak performance by coaching them to visualise themselves performing ideal moves at optimum levels. Consequently, when they are in the game or a competition they can successfully repeat an outcome that they have vividly imagined and rehearsed many times before.
The use of creative imagination was once thought to be limited to artists such as Michelangelo, famously quoted as saying “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material”. We can now see this as a precursor to ‘back-casting‘ in strategic planning, whereby a beneficial scenario is used as a starting point, and its origins and lines of development are traced back to the present. This process is sometimes also called ‘reverse-engineering’, as illustrated in the chart below.
More recently the wider use of this approach across all fields has been summed up in the quote “Everything begins with a thought, and thoughts are turned into plans, and plans into reality” (Marshall Sylver).
Just as peak athletic or artistic performance requires the vivid picturing of a desired future state, so too does effective strategic planning (and career planning). The chart below augments the messages in the header image by unpacking some of the elements of the process. This tabular presentation may also skim over some aspects that are important in your field, but it nonetheless conveys broadly relevant considerations for most organisations.
Potential, possible, plausible, probable, preferred
Scenario mapping is one of the processes recommended for strategic planning and we are indebted to futurists such as Hancock and Bezold (1994) for the development of taxonomies and schematics distinguishing between possible, plausible, probable and preferred futures (The Futures Cone). My version of this (below) adapts the standard model by blending it with the strategic archery metaphor, and McKinsey’s 3 Horizon model.
A strategic plan consists of a selection of goals, which can range over a number of focal areas. It is not one arrow aimed at one target, but a number of arrows aimed at a collection of chosen targets. The process of choosing which targets should be priorities for the next stage of your organisation’s work necessarily involves rejecting various potential or possible targets. While implausible (or preposterous) ones are relatively easy to reject, the critical debate is about which targets should be preferred, so that the board adds value to the organisation. As discussed previously, the trade-off between benefits, costs, and risks informs that process.
Some targets are shorter term, and others medium or longer term in nature (usually 3-5 years). Depending on the horizon under consideration, certain targets will focus on capacity building for later initiatives, while most will seek full delivery of outcomes and ‘impact benefits’ within the first ‘horizon’.
The limits on organisational resources and the skills of the ‘execution’ team all need to be taken into account. The addition of each extra goal can potentially impede success in achievement of the existing goals. Boards therefore need to consider those goals collectively, as well as individually. Part of that process involves ranking them in priority order, so that where decisions need to be made about which goals take precedence, the answer is usually obvious.
Future studies have given us the ‘Cone of Plausibility‘ (Taylor), ‘Utopian, Protopian and Dystopian‘ (Kelly) perspectives, and the ‘Futurist’s Framework for Strategic Development‘ (Webb) amongst many other models, all of which can aid your thinking about the areas requiring attention in your next strategic plan. Perhaps your board might also benefit from practicing strategic ‘archery’ to better align their intentions and the outcomes achieved.