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Strategy as Simple Rules

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Strategy as Simple Rules

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior. “ – Dee Hock, Founder and Former CEO of VISA International

My wife and I help run a small private school in our spare time. That pretty much means that we don’t have much spare time left for anything else. Creating this school has been a great learning experience and can be very rewarding. It can also be very difficult at times balancing the competing needs of all our school families. It has taught us many lessons about what you can accomplish if you put your mind to something, are willing to work hard, and are willing to adapt.

When we started this school, the founding members decided that we value small class sizes and affordable tuition. This philosophy has proven to be a key differentiator for our school and has allowed us to more than double in size over the past year and a half. That said, a business strategy that calls for fewer customers and less revenue can be a little risky. As you might imagine, we have to run a pretty tight ship to keep our little school afloat.

Regardless of the challenges we have faced over the past several years, we have always come back to the idea that we must have small class sizes and affordable tuition. When we are tempted to add more students and ease the financial pressure, we think back to why we founded this school and what makes is special. When considering a tuition increase to provide more services, we think about our promise to keep tuition affordable.

These simple rules have formed the basis of what has become a pretty complex strategy. The rules give guidance to the kinds of teachers we can hire, how we moderate our service offerings, our organizational structure, and our recruiting. The rules form the basis for both our short term and long term growth plans and ultimately shape our vision for the future.

In short, the rules provide a framework to guide our more complex day-to-day decision making.

Even though our school is a non-profit, some days looking more like a ministry than a business, we exhibit all the characteristics of a small startup. We are learning our market, we are learning our customers, we are learning our employees, and as leadership, we are learning each other. It is impossible to predict everything that we will encounter along the way, so by necessity, we have to be open to change… willing to adapt.

Our growth this year has been very challenging. It has stretched some of us to our limits with regard to what we are willing to personally sacrifice to make this school work. People are unpredictable and our school is full of them. It is very tempting to want to put rules in place to manage that unpredictability. We have struggled to stay focused on keeping things simple, to engage people in a way that is empowering and affirming and makes them want to be a part of our school.

We are learning, we are trying to adapt, and to that end, we are extending our simple rules strategy.

Right now we are working to identify our key roles and our key processes. We are looking for a few simple rules to guide how each one operates. Just like we have a few simple rules that influence how we manage our business, we are looking to identify a few simple rules to give direction to our staff and volunteers as they manage their day to day activities. The idea is that as we grow, we want to empower more people to be in charge of more parts of our school.

As leaders, we create opportunity and provide direction. The simple rules will give our team guidance on how to operate in alignment with that direction. Just think what we can accomplish if we are able to tap into the power and creativity of our entire school family; to allow our teachers and volunteers to make decisions, to adapt to their immediate surroundings, all the while staying in alignment with the direction we have set before them.

I think that is pretty powerful stuff and I am excited about what we will certainly be able to accomplish.

Next Scrum Project Management as a Simple Rules Framework

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