Take a minute:

Do you know what you want (in your relationship, at work, in life)?

Do you know how you’re going to get it?


Can you explain it to someone else in a few, or several sentences?


Collis and Ruksad, in their 2008 HBR article, Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?, explain how “very few executives can honestly answer these simple questions in the affirmative.” They explain “that most executives don’t actually know what all the elements of a strategy statement are, which makes it impossible for them to develop one.”

Their article caught my attention because, I thought, if this is true for executives, then chances are good there is some truth in the statement as it applies to non-executives, too. For one thing, all executives start their career as non-executives. And for another, if executives—who lead the firms in which we work—do not pass muster, you might conclude chances are slim that those they lead can do better—at articulating the elements of a strategy or at articulating a strategy itself.

You might wonder: Is this really important stuff? Is strategy relevant to me, to my life, to my family, to my kids?

Is it important to you? Is it?

I believe it is important and relevant—To individuals, families, organizations, and nations. “Strategy” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying “Plan.” For a person who wants to become the next Bill Gates or Mother Theresa, they’ll need a plan. For a mother and father who want children, that takes a plan. For parents who want their kids to learn and speak a second language, they need to plan for that. A grandmother selling her home, she needs plan for retirement. Companies that want to gain market share in a new region—they need a plan for getting there. And nations that want peace not war, prosperity not disparity, health not pain and suffering—these nations require plans.

During a three-week excursion to China this summer, the full weight of this idea of plans and strategies—and how they implicate us all (wittingly or not, willingly or not)—landed on my shoulders and has not departed:

Change is a constant in China, and many of the changes are very large-scale and/or radical. For example, China needs more roads and airstrips to accommodate all the cars and planes coming online. China needs more jobs to help bring its impoverished farming class up an economic rung or two. China needs cleaner (and more) power so it doesn’t choke on its own soot from coal-burning operations. And so on.

Managing one such massive change in a country challenges citizens, policy makers, economists, business people, and neighbors. Managing hundreds of large-scale changes is difficult to imagine.

But that is what China is doing.

(From http://ourchinatoday.blogspot.com/2009/04/managing-change-within-change.html)

In reality, that’s what we’re all doing—not just China and other nations, but the communities within them, the people, the teachers, the students, the firms, the governments.

You. You’re in charge of what you want, and of going after it.

A precursor to articulating a plan, or strategy—besides being able to identify the various elements of a strategy statement—is understanding what you want. This is not so much a question for business, management, and executives as it is for people, families, communities, and nations because our wants—our desires—stem from our values and beliefs. Organizations should reflect the espoused values of their markets—with products and services those markets value—not the other way round.

For people, articulating wants is no less daunting, especially today in our world, where change is constant, where we are in debt to nations we thought were dormant or insignificant, where enemies of the state exist only in virtual space, and where executives and leaders focus on their shareholder’s values rather than their customers’.

Strenger and Ruttenberg, in their illuminating article, The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change (HBR, 2008), unravel two myths about the classic midlife crisis (as originally coined by Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational consultant, Elliott Jacques), especially as it applies to executives: The first is that life declines after the midpoint:

“…the advantages that many people gain in midlife have hardly been mentioned. By middle age, most executives have gone through protracted crises that seemed insurmountable at the time; through these crises, they have discovered their strengths.”

The second myth, which speaks to the question, What do you want?, feeds

“…the all-too-human tendency toward wishful thinking…This new myth says that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Nike’s immortal “Just do it!””

The authors explain how executives in midlife can come to know what they want by joining the creative with the practical through self-examination and self-awareness. But this is not easy work, because the line between the two can be blurry, and dangerous:

“…[Dreaming is] the use of the imagination to create possible scenarios in which our potential can come to fruition. But to be productive, dreams must be connected to our potential. Otherwise, they are idle fantasies.”

This analysis resonates with Collis and Ruksad’s idea of the “strategic sweet spot,” which they define as the intersection of a “company’s capabilities” and its “customers’ needs” (aka wants).

So one way to answer the question, What do you want?, is to “stay open to the range of possibilities [your] experience has actually qualified [you] for—but remain realistic about what [you] can achieve.”

These lessons resonate with me, except I can’t help wonder why they only applied to midlife and only to executives in midlife.

They don’t. In fact, we’re all executives: We each have “administrative and/or managerial responsibility” for our life.

Are you a healthy neurosurgeon in your 70s? Are you a thirteen-year-old boy deciding whether to play football or soccer? Are you a 40-something mum whose child will be going to daycare soon? Are you a new manager, hiring someone for the first time? Have you been laid off during this recession?

Actually, not only is it possible to answer the question, What do you want?, we’re each responsible for asking and answering it, and for sharing our answers, especially with those close to us.

If we don’t, then we relinquish our executive power to others or, worse, to companies and governments. Companies and governments are not people. They are made up of people. If we don’t know how to ask these questions of ourselves, how can we in good faith expect others to do better?

What do you want?

Can you explain it to someone else in a few, or several sentences?

When was the last time you did that?

© 2009 John Dila