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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published October 25, 2010

How to build a dependable foundation for next year's growth 

This week – moving from October into November – marks the height of the strategic planning cycle for many businesses. And if ever it was important to re-examine how you think strategically about business planning, now is the time.Most of us use metaphors as a bedrock for strategic thinking – sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally, often both. Whatever your metaphor of choice, we’re in the middle of an economic storm, that much is clear. But when it comes to planning for next year, it’s the other side of the metaphor – the way you think about your business in the storm – that counts. (The brilliant Julian Jaynes coined the phrase ‘metaphrand’ to refer to the individual elements of a metaphor, and somewhat cavalierly, I shall, too).

Here are the main three types of metaphrand I see senior managers and business owners use (sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously) to anchor how they think about their business in the overall ‘economic storm’ metaphor:

1. Passive metaphrand
Here the business is usually seen as something like a ship, or boat, at the mercy of the storm. Business planning under this metaphrand is always ultra-conservative and has as its goal little more than survival until the storm passes.

2. Semi-passive metaphrand
The CEO of a $2bn business told me recently that he felt like he was trying to play chess – but in the teeth of, guess what – yes, the inevitable storm. This is a great example of a semi-passive metaphrand, where you are trying to get something done with your business – trying to make some headway, but the economic ‘storm’ threatens your every move.

Business and strategic plans developed out of a semi-passive metaphrand are almost always brittle and easily undercut by events (simply because it’s impossible to plan for every conceivable way in which the external economic environment might impact your business). They end up being revised multiple times and often eventually junked in the back half of the year.

3. Integrated metaphrand
I talked some weeks ago with the young founder/owner of a business that by any rights should be getting whipped, given in the industry they operate in (construction). Instead, the business is growing – slower than she’d like, yes – but growing nonetheless.

This woman grew up in the north-east, and she explained to me that she bases her view of what her business needs to do by watching the mailman in her small town turn up every day, irrespective of the conditions, and simply deliver the mail.

In her metaphrand, she has to turn up every day with the right clothing and protective gear, get out there and deliver the mail. No point hunkering down for the storm to pass, because (a) the mail wouldn’t get delivered, and (b) there might be another storm tomorrow, anyway. Just get out there with the right tools and get the job done. Every day.

This is a great example of the integrated metaphrand, where the storm is drained of its evil intent – it has no knowledge of you or your business, and it isn’t trying to destroy you. It just is. It isn’t to be battled, confronted, howled at or avoided – it just is. Your job is to integrate your business into whatever the conditions are – storm or no storm – tool up accordingly and keep moving forward.

Pause a moment. You have a built-in, reflexive metaphrand hard-wired in your brain. Take it out. Take a look at it. Is is serving you well? Or is it time to change your metaphrand?

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