Never a settled product

Calibrating our strategy for long-term success

This is the fourth and final post in a series about getting “unstuck in the middle,” moving up-market, and charging profitable prices. One, Two, Three.

In Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman summed up his prodigious study of four millennia of military, social, and business strategy, writing:

“A strategy could never really be considered a settled product, a fixed reference point for all decision-making, but rather a continuing activity, with important moments of decision.”

Across time, we can see that the strategies that work are the ones that allow for flexibility and adaptation. It’s every bit as true for the grand strategies of history as it is for the marketing and positioning strategies for our business.

As Roger Martin warned, “Guesses can be made,” but “in a complex adaptive system, it is not possible to know in advance the organized, sequential steps toward perfection.”

Instead, as Claude C. Hopkins put it, “we must feel our way.”

So once we’ve recognized our current state of affairs, decided to focus, and taken the action necessary to reinforce a unique market position, we need to know whether our new marketing efforts are having the desired effect.

And our immediate measure of the quality of our marketing is whether we are enjoying the process or not.

As one historian wrote, “Efficiency springs from enthusiasm—because this alone can develop a dynamic impulse.” We need to like what we’re doing or we won’t stick with it for the long-term. And we are on a long-term journey.

“Enthusiasm is incompatible with compulsion,” he said, so we can’t simply force ourselves to put the marketing work in. We need to enjoy it, which means we need to feel confident in what we’re doing, embrace joy and celebrate our achievements, and set a measured, sustainable pace.

If we don’t feel like we can continue this pace for years to come, it won’t work. It can’t work.

So we need to keep adjusting our marketing process until we are clearly and creatively—and enthusiastically—demonstrating what we’re best at, in what particular ways, for which particular clients.

And it’s those clients’ reception of our market position that tells us whether our efforts are getting results.

Is our sales process smoother now?

If we have found the right position, selling, as Blair Enns wrote, should feel like “helping the unaware, inspiring the interested, and reassuring those who have formed intent.”

If it instead feels like convincing, cajoling, or persuading, we haven’t found the right “Job to Be Done” or “struggling moment” in our clients’ lives or businesses, and we’ll need to keep adjusting our approach.

And if our sales process feels like saying yes to everything that comes our way and taking on too much for too little, we haven’t focused enough. We’re too substitutable, so we still don’t feel confident sticking with our prices or scope because we fear losing the opportunity.

But profit will elude us as long as we’re intent to talk our clients into working with us. And we’ll struggle as long as we’re willing to take on every project that arises simply out of fear of missing out.

Instead, we must adjust our position or the way we creatively communicate it until selling is as simple—and as focused—as demonstrating what it’s like to work with us.

And it’s whether we like the work, and the clients we’re working with, that tells us if we’re headed toward long-term success.

Our work must be both financially profitable and emotionally profitable. That is, it must give us more back—in energy, enthusiasm, and joy—than it depletes.

Or do our projects and clients feel like a toll, a burden, or an insurmountable challenge?

Our enthusiasm to do our best work will fade and fail if we feel compelled. So if our clients are not refilling our stock of knowledge, experience, and motivation, we won’t last long.

Better to adjust our position and our marketing to find clients who appreciate our value than keep doing work that wears us down. As David Maister once wrote, “I am not going to reach my tombstone with it saying, ‘He did tolerable work for tolerable people because they paid him.’”

Instead, we can do great work—our best work—for great clients, because we couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

But if we don’t have the enthusiasm to market ourselves and talk about our accomplishments, we won’t stick with it and we won’t get where we want to go.

If we don’t understand our clients’ true challenges and what they value most, selling our services will continue to be costly and time-absorbing.

And if we aren’t doing work we love with clients who genuinely appreciate our value, we’ll always be on the lookout for another path, another direction, or a way out. We’ll remain unfocused, and we’ll drift farther from our goals.

It’s possible to get “unstuck in the middle,” to build profit margin in our business, and to do the work we’re on this planet to do.

But it takes being realistic about where we are. It takes being determined to set a new course. Being enthusiastic about our actions. And flexible in our approach.

As my wife and business partner Leah Sanford always says, “If you can’t see the goal, set a pace.”

Start slow, and take your time.

But start today.

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If you’d like help to get “unstuck in the middle,” I’d love to chat: joel@familyknife.com