Strategies Not Shinies

I’ve recently had the pleasure of engaging with a local campaign group to re-open The Ivanhoe Line – a 30 mile rail track that has only been used for freight services for the last 50 years or so.

The project is exciting in many ways – it’s very credible (the line is already there), it’s environmentally beneficial, and it will make a very tangible impact on a community at the heart of England.

What is particularly exciting for me is that the group has two characteristics that radically improve the chance of success.

  1. Firstly they have a very clear goal – opening a particular stretch of track to passenger travel. This may seem obvious, but there are so many additional things they could include – adding more stations, linking into a whole mass transit system including buses, cycleways, taxis etc. All of these are of course important, but importantly they are outside of scope for the group. How many times have you got distracted by “shinies” – nice to haves that can cause such a distraction they make your project fail?
  2. Secondly they are building a strategy to reach the goal. Now when mention the word “strategy” eyes often glaze over or people claim to be “on it already”, when actually it is anything but. Good strategy involves the interaction of multiple lines of operation – how does production milestone reflect within your PR programme? How does a growth in your workforce match turnover without creating massive cashflow issues? And crucially, how does the chosen strategy dovetail with the people you have to deliver it? In the campaigning group, everyone is a volunteer – this means the strategy will be radically different to that of a public sector body or private company.

So what are your goals, and what strategy do you have to support them? Are they written down or do you just wing it everyday? Be honest with yourself and maybe take some time out to think about it.

Incidentally, if you are in the UK midlands, or just like trains, you might want to hook up with CRIL – the campaign to re-open the Ivanhoe Line. They’re on Facebook here: and there’s a video below.

Have a plan – and DON’T stick to it

Map and Compass


There is a common perception that the most effective companies have a crystal-clear goal and stop at nothing until they get there. Allow me to challenge this with some rudimentary analysis (it’s the only analysis I can do, but let’s park that for the moment).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for clear goals – indeed in a previous article I wrote about the need to get these really well defined and based on as many facts as possible.  Having a clear goal allows the whole organisation to become aligned and to exert effort in the same direction.

But I am talking about plans, not the goals they are designed to achieve.

This difference between the two is as clear as day but we often fall into the trap that believing that a goal, such as bringing a new product to market, is the same as a plan, which is the description of how to bring it to market.

Pull up a sandbag

If you’ll indulge me in a little embarrassing recollection I might expand on this a little.  Back in my days as a young Army Officer, we were in a multi-day competition, one element of which was a “march and bridge build”.  This involved navigating a course on foot carrying backpacks and rifles and building a medium girder bridge which is essentially a Meccano set with the parts being lifted by the team.

MGB Overbridge

Medium Girder Overbridge

The course had the start and finish points close together with a 10km loop to be navigated.  I assessed the distance and decided what speed we should proceed at in order to be fast, but not so fast we would be too tired to build the bridge quickly at the end of it all.

I confidently briefed the team, everyone was “up for it” inspired, no doubt, by my own enthusiasm and stirring monologue to them.

Ten minutes in, we were coming up to our first waypoint on the route.  The turning seemed to be a little further on than expected, but sometimes maps can be a bit misleading.  

Another 5 minutes and the next waypoint was due – a turn to the left.  But it was nowhere to be seen.

Nightmare!  Cue utter crisis of confidence and quizzical looks coming from the team.

A few older and wiser heads got around the map.

Everyone agreed the route that we had taken, but no-one could explain why we were apparently lost.

And then the penny dropped

Suddenly I realised what an utter idiot I had been.  

We had started the route physically in the right place on the ground (after all there were big signs there saying “start”). But when I had marked my map, I did not mark “start” and “finish” on it.  So, on my map I had been following the route from finish to start.

Well, the ground could have swallowed me up.  We’d wasted about twenty minutes on a course that should have taken us about 90 minutes total! I was mortified and felt like jumping into a ditch (I think my team would have helped me!)

Catching Up

Of course, there was no way we would win, but we had to try our hardest and catch up.  Running as fast as possible for the next hour, we retraced our steps to the correct junction and then continued along a route that was reassuringly like the map.

As we got to the end of the course and a concerned-looking safety crew, we had to go straight into the bridge build with no rest time.

And then the impossible happened.  

One of my team was an expert in the rapid assembly of this type of bridge.  There were some very effective tricks that could be used to short-circuit some of the longer operations – for instance lifting an end of the bridge with something like a car jack could be done with sheer brute force, which we had a lot of.

Our bridge build went like greased lightning, and we ended up in the top three for the competition.


Of course, there is a moral, in fact, a few morals to this story:

  • Before you decide on your goal, make sure you know where you are.
  • No matter how good your planning, as you proceed on the journey, you may find things are not quite how you expected them to appear.
  • If you have got something wrong, the sooner you say so, the more likely you are to recover from it.
  • Embarrassment is a horrible thing to experience, but you’ll laugh about it some later.
  • Never underestimate your team, they might well save the day.

When was the last time your plans had to change?

Do you need to re-evaluate how to approach your current goal?

If alligators keep circling your canoe, maybe you’re in the wrong river.



Speak to just about any company and, if their honest, there will be some immediate issue that is vexing them – the alligator nearest the canoe – that one issue which is taking up 90% of their mental and emotional effort and that is distracting them from doing other, equally important work. Continue reading “If alligators keep circling your canoe, maybe you’re in the wrong river.”