This is the first recorded map of Africa. It dates back to 1554. It’s fascinating to see the resemblance, but if you weren’t told it’s Africa, it’s probably unrecognisable.

It was drafted by a scholar named Sebastian Munster, a professor of Hebrew and a brilliant cartographer (if you think of what he achieved with the technology available in the 16th century). He pieced this map together (as well as maps of the other 3 known continents at that stage) from various sources – from other scholars and travellers who provided him with verbal accounts and maps of parts of the continents.

Over the next 300 years, the map evolved and the distinct shape of the African continent became more recognisable. Details were added such as rivers and large lakes (although not always in the right place), important ports, travel routes, territories and even Table Mountain. The extraordinary explorations of the 1800s from David Livingstone and his peers allowed for even more detailed improvements to mapping Africa, in a fairly short amount of time.

There’s no way that David Livingstone could have done what he did without the cartography work that was kicked off by Sebastian Munster some 300 years earlier.

Strategic direction: the cartography of execution

Strategic direction is the starting point of successful execution. It’s the foot of the mountain or the spring of the river.

Successful execution can’t happen without strategic direction. Just like successful exploration can’t happen without a map.

The map doesn’t have to be right, but it has to be there. I can say with some confidence that the map will be wrong. Setting a strategy often means you’re venturing into the unknown, the unseen. If your strategy is what will differentiate you, it means no one has done it before. It’s the obscure, the uncharted waters.

“All models are wrong, only some are useful.”

George Box

Make peace with the fact that your map will be wrong. But also that it will be useful.

The process

Here’s our recommended approach to setting a strategic direction. Because “all models are wrong”, keep it simple. Do as much preparation as required, but no more.

Draw the map

Setting a strategy requires drawing a map without having the full picture. And this, in turn, requires piecing together information from disparate sources.

Find the sources. Put them together. Fill in the blanks. Use tools like SWOT, Porter’s 5 forces, SWT, DuPont analysis, etc.

If this seems onerous, remember that maps are seldom thrown away. It’s updated yes, as more information transpires. But not thrown out.

Aim to walk out with two things:

  • Understanding where you are currently on your map
  • Agreement on where you want to move to on your map

Plan your route 

The map is not the route. The map is everyone’s. The route is yours. It’s your differentiator, the way that you’ll move quicker than your competition.

Route planning is where the tough decisions are required – don’t try do everything, focus on the important. List the necessary decisions and use tools like Andy Grove’s decision-making process, De Bono’s six thinking hats or the Eisenhower Matrix.

“Decisions don’t wait… You have to make them when you have to make them.”

Andy Grove

Aim to walk out with two things:

  • 3-5 themes that you need to pursue to move you forward
  • A list of key strategic decisions

Walk the road

A scholar is not an adventurer. Sebastian Munster was a scholar. David Livingstone was an adventurer. Both disciplines are necessary for the pursuit of strategy. Walking the road is the stuff of an adventurer. Walking the road requires courage.

The best advice here is to just start. You’ve mapped the terrain, you’ve planned the route, you’ve spoken to the locals. Now start.

Because these are team efforts, be sure to create consistency and alignment. Use goal management tools like OKRs or SMART.

Aim to walk out with two things:

  • A consistent methodology that can be utilised across teams – everyone needs to be speaking the same language
  • Strategic themes that are translated into the methodology

Adapt to the territory

The map is not the territory. Once you get out there, you’ll realise your map is incomplete, inaccurate or impractical. Embrace it and update it.

The way to allow for this is to implement healthy business habits. Set themes annually, review them every six months, align quarterly goals to themes, meet regularly to break down barriers.

The most inefficient way to spend your time is being incredibly efficient at things that don’t matter.

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