Bell the cat – taking risk from the top in your strategy

Have you ever seen a corporate strategy that means nothing? They used to be everywhere. When a strategy means nothing, it uses phrases like “Deliver excellence” or “Empower our users”. You can almost see the focus groups working, writing up postit notes on the butcher’s paper, working to build ideas that capture what the future might look like.

There is perhaps no less effective strategy than one which merely restates what everyone knows and makes statements that nobody can disagree with. Rather, a strategy should bake in big ticket decisions on change to deliver new results. Doing that well often needs some change, and change always brings some risk.

A good strategy takes the risk on change, and sets the goals for the business to deliver. But that risk shouldn’t come from the middle of an organisation – it has to come from the top. Real risk, real change, real leadership.

There is an apocryphal tale about a group of mice who live in the same house as a cat. Every time a mouse strays out into the house at night, the cat is waiting to pounce. Now a strategy to counter that threat might be for the mice to improve their low noise practices, or to schedule better around the cat. All low risk, but no change, and no improvement.

What the mice need is a way to hear when the cat is nearby, a bell on its collar that would tinkle and give away the game. This is the real strategy – improve the warning system, but at a considerable risk. Who will be the mouse who sneaks over when the cat is sleeping to slip that noisy bell onto its collar, and risk making a sound that would be its undoing? Every mouse will get benefit once the bell is there, but there is huge risk in belling the cat.

It has to be up to the leaders to decide to take that risk, to make a change that the business can pivot on and set the direction for the team to deliver against. If it works, the business can thrive and build new success. But if it doesn’t work, the business might stumble and the leaders may have to scramble to recover.

But what is worse than a stumble is a strategy that lets that risk go unprosecuted, leaves the cat with no bell on its collar. Perhaps barely better than not having a strategy at all.

The right place to take risk is at the senior level – there is mandate to make significant change and it is the right place to celebrate the success or bear the consequences.

The best strategies make big calls on future of business – for a technical business the transition to cloud computing is an obvious one in the last decade, work from home is another forced by COVID (and now an opportunity to double down on a longer model for the future of work). There is surely a cat that needs belling in your workplace.

Teams in a business have the best opportunity for success when the corporate strategy takes risk on a big call, and then trusts their teams to build great things in the space created. Opportunity favours the brave, and businesses that succeed are the ones with leaders who take risk from the front.

Bell the cat in your next strategy.