Navigation is not just for mariners

Throughout history, humanity developed its navigation capabilities. The process went through many stages, from stellar navigation to compasses, gyroscopes and finally GPS systems.


There was always the need to identify where one was and set direction for progression. To the modern GPS user, it might look simple and obvious, when the friendly voice on their in-car device directs them to unknown destinations with great ease. And yet, many ships, caravans and travellers got lost throughout history due to poor navigation and the absence of technology.

In a likewise manner we can say that organizations try to navigate their way in the sea of uncertainty that surrounds them. To define what your organization current position in its market is and then to define where it goes is a complex task. So all organizations have navigators, be it a board of directors, senior management or a general manager. It is interesting to note that a Director is someone that provides direction.

This process of navigation is sometimes called setting strategy, vision and mission.

Although this is a very partial aspect of navigating organizations, let us review this idea and its meaning.

Strategy is a Greek word that comes from the word ‘Strategos’ – an army leader.

The word ‘Strategos’ originates from the word – ‘Strata’ which means “plain”.

In ancient times, the only way to command a battle was to stand in an elevated place that has the view of the whole plain where the armies battle and from this overview make major decisions concerning the battle. Like so many other human terms, strategy comes from the military. The ability to make major decisions by having an overall view is thus termed ‘Strategy’.

Even when there is an organizational strategy there are so many other factors that can go wrong, so many execution issues that might turn the strategy to be meaningless, so many ‘people issues’ that might render the strategy ineffective

From my experience with many organizations over the last 30 years, setting a strategy, vision and mission is a very small part of actually navigating an organization in this age.

The complexity of markets, competition, frequent and radical changes makes it almost impossible to navigate an organization seamlessly.

Only 10 years ago many organizations could set a vision for 15 years ahead. Nowadays very few organizations bother to do that. There will be so many changes and variations in those coming 15 years that it is almost futile to try and set anything definitive for such a long period of time. In the book ‘Built to Last’ which was published in the 90’s the author, Jim Collins described companies that lasted as market leaders for many decades and were ‘built to last’. 25 years later many of these companies do not exist or lost their market leadership.

So the act of navigating an organization became a process that should be engaged with constantly. No autopilots will do. Amidst omnipresent changes and constant ambiguity hands-on navigation is the only way to go.

Every decision about policies, products, development, recruiting, etc. is an act of navigation that might influence the course of movement of the organization.

To navigate well, one needs a compass, a GPS or some other system that one can trust.

This article proposes such navigation system. It can be used by organizations in the arena of their market or by teams in the arena of the whole organization. Such a system needs to answer many complexities inside and outside the organization.

This system is 4 directional and tries to look at the various aspects that are involved in navigating an organization.

The first step in navigating is always to assess where the organization currently is.

The second step is to assess the trends that exist in that market place or its eco-system.

Finally, actual navigation can start by using the compass with four directions:

North: Where do we go from here?

East: Why do we want to go there?

West: How shall we get there?

South: What might stop us on the way, internally and externally?

At a Bit Deeper Level

This is the simplistic version of this compass. Now, let us look at this at a bit deeper level.

First step: To asses what is your organization’s current position is a complex task by itself.

One way to do it is to look at the various stakeholders of the organization.

These will include: Shareholders, customers, managers, employees, vendors, community and more.

You need to assess their current needs and how well the organization answers these needs and where there might be gaps? The appraisal of the current situation involves financial view, marketing view, sales view, R&D view, employees’ engagement view, management stability and competency view and more.

This type of information needs to be available frequently to those who navigate the organization.

Secondly, it is crucial to analyze the trends in your market or industry. Navigating without paying attention to currents might lead the navigator very far away from where they intended to go to. The technology of the organization might become obsolete, the organizational structures might become invalid, the talents might leave, and the marketing strategy might become irrelevant. So many companies and organizations have experienced this in the last few years.

So, reading the trends internally and externally is crucial. It is a bit like fortune telling, as significant trends should be discovered early on. There is also the challenge of trying to differentiate between major trends as they occur and minor trends. As an example, the CEO of Digital equipment Co., a leader in the markets of IT in the 80’s said at that time:

“There is no reason why anyone would want to have a personal computer in their home“. Failing to read the emerging trend of the need for PC’s eventually caused the fall of this major corporation.

When some of that information exists, the leading team can utilize their compass.

A Complete Process of Navigation

The North process takes into account the current location and the trends that take place and asks the question of “Where To?

It tries to answer three main topics

1. The best future direction for us as an organization puts to best usage of our core competencies and core drivers vis a vis the market current and future needs.

2. Setting a strategy – a practical model that will allow us to move to the next step of our progression

3. A vision – a best-case future reality along the axis of the chosen direction. Nowadays for most organizations setting a vision for three years is a far-reaching task.

Some might argue that a vision should come first, and sometimes it does. However, in this ever-changing world, setting a direction and updating it from time to time should happen before a vision is reset. This is because very often the vision might be not relevant to the organization competencies, drivers and resources.

The East process tries to work out the question of “Why?“. It tries to locate the core drivers, motivations and values of the organization, to be able to work out its direction, strategy and vision. Without the existence and empowering of these engines, the organization will not be able to fulfil its aims. The main topics here are

1. Do we have the drivers and motivations needed to succeed?

2. Are the people in the organization connected and engaged with these motivations?

3. Are the core values of the organization defined and embedded in the mindsets of its people?

The West process tries to work out the question of “How?“. How shall we get there? How shall we plan the next stage? How shall we execute it? This is a well-known process; however, it is rarely done well, taking into account all the relevant factors. We look at two stages here:

1. Planning

2. Execution

The planning phase should include short-term goals; reviewing all the necessary resources, skills, teams etc; building realistic consequential steps; setting time lines and mile stones.

It breaks down the strategy and vision into bitesize manageable chunks of activities, roles and responsibilities. The execution phase requires great discipline and consistency.

Most organizations fail in this stage due to poor communication, lack of follow-up, insufficient training and mainly dispersion. This happens due to endless distractions, Too Much Information and Organizational Attention Deficiency Disorder. So many people run all over the place, exchanging hundreds of e-mails a day, bombarding each other with information whilst not much productive work gets done.

So, disciplined execution becomes a serious challenge.

The South process looks at the more hidden level and asks “Why not?“. What might stop us from within and from without to reach our vision and execute our plans?

This process tries to analyze:

1. What might be the external difficulties or stoppers that might hinder us?

2. What might be the internal limiting beliefs and factors that might stop us or slow us down?

These issues are usually not looked at. Many organizations often prefer to ignore them or to delay dealing with them until they cannot put them off them any longer.

External difficulties are easier to observe – competition, regulations changes, price wars, change of markets trends, recessions etc.

These difficulties can either cause internal difficulties or be leveraged to improve the resilience and flexibility of the organization and its people.

The internal difficulties are harder to observe. They can range from limiting beliefs, historic anachronistic perceptions, comfort zones, interpersonal issues, lack of engagement or cooperation and much more. To navigate without paying attention and handling such issues is like navigating the Titanic after crushing into the iceberg.

These situations drain the energy of the organization and sabotage its ability to succeed.

It takes courage and leadership to admit to internal limiting factors of an organization.

It then requires great skill or external assistance to be able to improve that situation.

These four directions include a broad view and a holistic approach that is necessary to be able to navigate an organization in an everchanging reality.

There is no doubt that the next few years will be marked by increase of rapid changes and the collapse of historic systems. The capacity to navigate successfully will become crucial for many organizations, as wise navigation will mark the difference between success and failure.

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© N.E.W.S.® Coaching and Training Sarl. 2019

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© N.E.W.S.® Coaching and Training Sarl. 2019

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