Strategic goals and a lesson from aviation

Flying instructors sometimes advise the  pilots they are training never to think in terms of the mechanics of manoeuvering their plane–moving the rudder, ailerons or elevators. Instead, they advise to think in terms of pressure. There is a nice account of this in Jet Age by Sam Howe Verhovek, where Toy Franklin is teaching Alvin “Tex” Johnston to fly. Tex Johnston later became chief test pilot for Boeing during the heady early days of commercial jet aviation.

“Right and left pressure on the rudder pedals for directional control, side pressure on the stick for a roll, and fore-and-aft pressure on the stick to move the nose upwards toward you or away from you. Don’t think of nose up and nose down. That way, when you advance to aerobatics and get on your back, you won’t be confused!” explains Toy to the young Johnston.

Guiding corporate strategy is much like flying a plane. Think of strategic goals in terms of the pressure that we will apply to moving our business, rather than the mechanics of how we will move. For example, a strategic goal might be, “Improve understanding of China market” (pressure), rather than “Conduct China market survey” (mechanics). After all, improving understanding of the China market tells us the direction we wish to go. Conducting a market survey is just one option among many for how to move. That way, when we get into the aerobatics of implementation, it is the direction in which we want to move that keeps us oriented, rather than the mechanics of how to get there. Should we find that a market survey is not helping us improve our understanding of the China market the way we had hoped, we can choose other options. However, if we think of strategic goals only in terms of mechanics, when the China market survey doesn’t work, we become disoriented.

So when piloting strategy for your business, think in terms of pressure over mechanics. Use that to maintain orientation during the aerobatics of implementation. This will help you stay the course toward your final destination, even when you end up on your back.