In Business, Hope Is Not a Strategy

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As we head into 2023, remember that the only way to avoid difficult situations is to do nothing of importance

An elephant on a tree in the desert
iStock/Orla

I saw an advertisement in a business magazine recently referring to the emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis, where more emerging treatments and technologies increased the potential for hope among patients and their families.

Admittedly, medical treatment for many of us is a black box. Understanding the associated science and procedures can be somewhat elusive and, therefore, best left to the professionals. Thus our hope and trust.

Hope is what you have left when you cannot take action. Hope can sustain us as individuals, but within organizations, we can’t rely on hope. Yet how often have you heard some senior official lament that “we can only hope things get better”?

That statement is not true. For anyone leading a team or organization, hope is not a strategy. Can we wait until things return to normal? Should we stop at hoping things get better? Of course not.

We can say that managing through the challenges in our operation involves leadership, effective operations and the execution of good strategy. Relying on hope leaves these words as nouns, whereas the act of leadership and execution should make them verbs. Verbs are actions; we have a responsibility to execute.

At Smith School of Business, my colleague Kathryn Brohman and I spend a lot of time working with managers and executives on projects, operations and overall execution. Over the years, we have found that leaders in many organizations want to act, yet they feel blocked by various organizational barriers. While overcoming those barriers is a larger discussion, we can start by identifying the problems that we face today as a business. How do we know when (or where) we are operationally challenged? Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • How many customers have you lost in the last year? Do you know why you lost them?
  • Do your projects and key initiatives generally launch well, or do they more often go sideways?
  • Are your processes and systems in control, or do they create frustration and force workarounds for employees and customers?
  • Are successful interactions with customers by design, or do they as often happen by chance?

If you are nodding your head to any of these questions, the next one is even more important: What are you prepared to do about it? Moving past hope means taking control.

Two examples: If the level of disruption in the world seems orders of magnitude greater now than in years past to you, you are not alone. Oil and gas supply is threatened, access to semiconductors and chips has been turbulent, and even the movement of goods has been interrupted, despite costs quintupling. Massive society-wide trends continue beyond the impact of the pandemic. Organizations, and even countries, are reacting with re-shoring initiatives, bringing supply home and localizing capability and capacity. The concepts of globalization are being reshaped as firms and governments echo the mantra that the only way to control their destiny is to make it here (whatever it is).

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More specifically, consider an airline pilot or operating room surgeon. Both operate with checklists and tools of the trade that are organized just so. The outcome of their processes is too important to not control their environment. Somewhere between these two examples are key considerations for organizations as they prepare for 2023. Think about these:

  • Have we established key priorities for the coming year and worked to understand the gaps and barriers between us and those priorities?
  • Are our strategic projects and initiatives truly prioritized, applying tools such as risk management? Do they enjoy the support of executive sponsors?
  • Has the organization identified which of our processes, services or products are mission-critical, and do we have supporting mechanisms for these operations in our business?
  • Have we reviewed internal processes for their impact on employees and our ability to deliver value to customers (and yes, governments and public services have customers)?

Many organizations will continue to wait it out and hope for the best. Perhaps a consequence of our consistently growing population is that many of those organizations remain busy. For the rest of us, we have work ahead. As author Scott Berkun once said, “the only way to avoid difficult situations is to do nothing of importance.” You’ve got this.

Barry Cross is an assistant professor and the Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business. He is the bestselling author of Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.