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Reflections on 2021: A Year of Constant Adaptation


Another epic year of change and challenges is in the books. In 2021, as we continued to navigate the whitewater of the pandemic and other shifting factors, it was reassuring to see how many foundational ideas about leadership and strategy held fast.

Here’s a recap of the most significant enduring truths that the WhiteWater team noticed when it comes to building a thriving, resilient, future-facing organization.

  1. Strategy doesn’t need to be intimidating. To some, “strategy” sounds complex or even abstract, but the concept is actually really straightforward and grounded: how do you create a sustainable, defensible competitive advantage in the marketplace? That is, how do you win your target customers’ choice? For more, check out this recent post.

  2. “Implicit” strategy can work – for a while. If you’re a small company or a startup, there’s a certain momentum you can call strategy, even if your success is more of a serendipitous by-product than the outcome of focused planning. It looks like this: You offer a product or service. People like it. They buy. You grow…until you don’t.

  3. Sustainable, long-term growth requires explicit strategy. Eventually, you have to get serious if you want to maximize the value of your organization. And even many mature, decades-old companies have to learn this lesson the hard way: organizations without a defined strategy tend to be under-valued.

  4. Strategy starts with talking to your customers. ​​The best way to build a strategy is ridiculously basic, but many organizations skip this step: speak to your customers. That includes existing, former and potential customers. They have the intel and insights you need to understand what brings value for them.

  5. Execution is vital: Despite the unparalleled success of our book, Get in Gear: The Seven Gears that Drive Strategy to Results, more than a few organizations are still not performing their best! While some of these shortcomings are due to bad strategy, far more often, organizations fall short due to execution failures. Systematically aligning the seven gears takes work but invariably results in better performance.

  6. Set explicit goals. Most people avoid setting goals because accountability is scary. What if you don’t hit your target? We must reframe failure, not as something to avoid, but to embrace as the path to achieving new outcomes and, when you fall short, of learning.

  7. Defined goals lead to better performance. Not surprising, Captain Obvious! Despite knowing this, it is shocking how few organizations, teams and individuals put serious effort into defining their goals and then – and this is essential – cascading them down through the organization, so everyone is aligned. Something like 85% of businesses come up short on results because they haven’t actually executed those goals. For some ideas on how to get started, check out this post.

  8. Communication is vital. We just gotta talk to each other and listen. And yet, in so many organizations, when team members try to give their points of view, their leaders are too busy talking or formulating responses to stop, listen and absorb what is being shared. This post shares some easy ways to improve communications today.

  9. It starts with active listening. This is a simple concept that almost everyone in our training sessions can describe. And yet, it’s alarming to learn how little truly active listening people do. Also surprising? When someone truly, actively, empathetically listens to them, how great people feel. Active listening is team-building, motivational gold.

  10. The best leaders embrace courageous conversations. The ability to hold a challenging conversation continues to be one of the leading performance drivers distinguishing great from average leaders. Courageous conversations are built on a foundation of trust, respect and caring.

  11. There is no new normal. Change is a constant. There is merely a next normal, which will be quickly replaced by a next, next normal. Your organization must be flexible, adaptable and build a resilient team capable of changing quickly and performing regardless of whatever comes next.

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