When Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple, he felt betrayed by John Sculley, someone he brought into the company. Apple would eventually lose its dominant position, and Steve Jobs was brought back in. However, he quickly realized that the company had no focus. Multiple teams were building products, but no one could explain the overall strategy. Like running on a treadmill, the company wasn’t moving forward.
During a meeting, his patience ran out. Walter Isaacson recounts the story in his biography:
After a few weeks, Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. “The room was in dumb silence,” Schiller recalled.Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
Even to an outsider, the strategy makes sense. Apple would create history-changing products like the iPhone, iPad, and more—all based on simple strategies. Steve Jobs changed the direction of a failing company by providing a strategy that people could rally around. It was all done using two lines and a handful of words.
Many companies intellectually understand the value of a strategy. However, executives can live in two different worlds. In one world, anything is possible. In the other world, nothing is possible. Formulation happens in the former, while the implementation occurs in the latter.
Look at your strategy. Is it working with you by helping your team make decisions, block out the unnecessary, and focus on the critical? A strategy acts as a protective bubble. You can see things outside the translucent layer, but nothing comes in.
A poor strategy is like the Alcatraz prison. It prevents you from swimming towards land and new markets. However, you can still hear the music of new customers inside the prison.
Look at Sears. They pioneered the idea to use railroads to reach customers at the frontier. As a result, people bought all kinds of products by simply ordering from their catalog. So why didn’t their strategy help them become Amazon?
The US Postal Service is another example. They ushered in the era of airmail and helped soldiers communicate back home during the US Civil War. So why didn’t their strategy allow them to see the rise of email or, more recently, the need for delivery for ecommerce goods?
Behind great successes and failures, you can find strategies. They don’t have to be complex and designed by a small army from McKinsey. They just have to work with you.