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How to Make Future-Focused Decisions

How to make future-focused decisions ~ September, 2010

A district manager for Starbucks noticed that she was losing customers in her stores. She checked out her competition and found that they were offering sweetened coffee drinks, not offered by Starbucks. She listened to her customers who asked, “Why can’t we get the same kind of coffee drinks at Starbucks?” The manager didn’t know, but was determined to keep her customers. She concocted a delectable sweetened coffee potion and invited Howard Behar, then Starbucks president, to pay her a visit, hear about her dilemma, and taste her new potion—which he did.

Howard took the manager’s idea back to corporate, who rejected the idea of offering a sweetened coffee drink that ventured outside the Starbucks brand. After months and months of back and forth on the issue, including a corporate tasting session, and many corporate misgivings, the manager’s idea was given a six-month trial, solely in her district. Now, many years later, Frappuccino® generates about $4 billion a year in revenue for Starbucks—I believe that’s the figure Howard Behar gave when telling this story at the ACG conference last March.

How many more billions could Starbucks have made if they had hopped on the district manager’s idea sooner?

Analytical or shoot-from-the hip?

If you’ve felt the pulse of a flexible, nimble start-up and experienced the drag of bureaucracy, you know that there is more than one way to come to a decision. Which is better?

Objective, fact-based analysis has its place. Decisions made in this more bureaucratic mode can mean that quality is designed into your product or service. In the Internet age, there is little time to go back and correct bad decisions made in haste. On the other hand, what opportunities are you passing by while you analyze decisions, or let innovative ideas die on someone’s desk? The risk is no gain.

Decisions made in more entrepreneurial cultures tend to be subjective and reactionary. They have immediate impact, but can mean costly product and service design flaws. Carpe diem.

Speed up and you risk costly mistakes; slow down and the competition gets there before you do.

A combination of the two decision-making processes leads to better strategies for the future.

Making Future-Focused Decisions

The future, not the past, should be the center of today’s decision making. A future focus takes both analytical thinking and quick action.

Strategies can fail for a number of reasons: poorly managed execution; scant attention to mobilizing stakeholders and resources; and insufficient assessment of the current competitive environment can all undermine success. But it’s a failure to anticipate future risks and imagine the impact of a new future state that can make strategic decisions obsolete before you even get a chance to carry them out.

How do you incorporate anticipation, imagination—and analysis into your decision making? Starbucks Howard Behar makes a simple few, but highly useful, suggestions in his book, It’s Not about the Coffee, interpreted here as:

  • Listen for the facts—and the truth. (“What do the walls say?”) Don’t make decisions without hearing both.
  • Be open to dissent, which breeds trust, and good decisions are based on trust.
  • Let there be silence; it may be awkward at first, and then a flood of contributions opens up that leads to important input from many before decisions are made.

Analyze all of that input, the market environment, and the reality of your capabilities, and take a courageous step into the future—quickly.

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