Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Working "in" versus Working "on"

 In entrepreneurial circles, there's a lot of talk about the concepts of working "in" your business versus working "on" your business.  The distinction is that working in the business defines the work that drives the business day to day - going to meetings, answering email, providing products and services for customers.  Working on the business is the time you spend thinking about why the business exists, how it should operate and what it should become.  Far too many entrepreneurs get caught up in working in their business, because there are few people to delegate important day-to-day work to, and neglect to focus their thinking in the other vital category - working on their business to make it better.

I'd like to borrow this idea from the entrepreneurial community and turn our gaze to mid-sized and larger firms, and think about how much time, if any, companies spend on two critical aspects of their business:  strategy and innovation.  It seems to me that both of these functions lack both "in" and "on" engagement, leading to organizations that aren't quite sure of their direction and that have trouble creating interesting new product and services.

I'll address both briefly below.

In Strategy or On Strategy?

It's far easier to talk about activities that are in the business (doing the day to day activities) versus on the business (thinking about the future, competitors, growth and change) than it is to talk about time in strategy versus on strategy.  I'll provide a definition of what I mean by in strategy and on strategy.

In strategy is the work of executing a viable strategy, developing an organizational structure that reflects what the strategy is trying to achieve.  Building processes and systems that enable and support the defined strategy.  What's difficult working "in strategy" is that it appears to be a lot like "in the business" except that it is informed by a definitive strategy.  You can imagine how easy it is to slip from working "in strategy" to "in the day to day" or becoming more reactive, since competition and market pressures are extreme and it is easy to forgot or ignore your stated strategy.  That is, if you have a strategy.

Working "On Strategy" means taking time to think carefully about your competitive advantage, where you want to focus limited resources, asking why you believe you can win.  Strategy is about understanding the market, understanding competitors and seeing emerging opportunities that you can serve.  Working on strategy means putting aside the day to day and seeing beyond the immediate tasks.  It means imagining the future and the new opportunities and challenges.  It means coming up with a value proposition, market segmentation and clear differentiation, and then communicating the strategy to the team, so that they can understand it and act on it.  

Most organizations spend about 95% of their time in the business, hoping that the work they are doing is not reactive but is guided by strategy.  In reality, most firms lack definitive strategy, and even those that have a good strategy often fail to communicate it effectively.  Executives would do well to pay heed to Stephen Covey, and learn to both "start with the end in mind" - build strategy and to "Sharpen the Saw" - do the work that is needed before other work takes precedence.

In Innovation or On Innovation?

Innovation is perhaps just as vital as strategy, and receives less attention.  Working "In Innovation" means doing work that is meant to create new products or services, generating ideas, spotting new trends or needs.  Most importantly, this work also entails converting ideas into products or services that are launched to consumers or the marketplace.  There are often several breakdowns in the "in innovation" sequence:  poor or lacking innovation methods or process, unclear direction about key opportunities or challenges to solve, no connection between idea generation and the product or service development process.  Work goes on "in innovation" but much of it lacks good direction, does not have definitive methods or processes, skips key activities, does little exploration and has little chance of becoming new products or services, due to a lack of integration between the "front end" and the product or service development funnel.

Working "On Innovation" rarely happens.  To work on innovation, companies and teams would need to define their approach to innovation, define goals, define working patterns and relationships, identify important innovation opportunities, customer challenges or emerging markets.  To work on innovation, companies need to train employees and build bridges between front end discovery and product or service development funnels BEFORE ideas are generated.

Far too much innovation effort is wasted because companies move directly into the activities of innovation without defining them, develop ideas that are not aligned to customer needs, solve problems that customers don't care about, and do not have the funds or means to develop and launch ideas.  What I've described is both of failure of being "On Innovation" which leads to failures "In Innovation".

We need more time On Strategy and On Innovation

It's clear companies need to spend more time on strategy and on innovation.  The countervailing argument to that is that the executives are stretched, time is compressed, markets are constantly changing.  To leave working "in the business" for any period of time risks the very existence of the company.  

Executives need to delegate day to day operations to their leadership and managers, and spend far more time thinking and acting on strategy and on innovation.  The increasing pace of change will not slow down, competitors don't give day passes if you cannot keep up.  Only by investing on strategy and on innovation will you be able to compete and perhaps even steal a march on your competitors.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:01 AM 0 comments