Strategic Intent and Strategic Imperative . . .

strategicintent-120630103856-phpapp02-thumbnail-4In working with a client on aligning their current strategic plan so that it could be effectively delivered (as you know most strategies fail due to poor execution), I discovered a considerable amount of confusion and lack of clarity around their vision and mission.  One of the reasons that this client, and many other companies, struggle with “vision” and “mission” is that these two words tend to be poorly defined and more often than not filled with consultant speak.

In the mid 1980’s after the publication of In Search of Excellence, an army of consultants burst on the scene to help “rudderless” organizations build mission and vision statements, which seemed to then require the need for values and value statements to guide the culture into alignment with the new vision. (Whew! Even I get tired of management speak.).  Even Enron had noble values and lofty mission statements, which of course no one paid any attention to, as is the case in most organizations.

What is needed is a more practical and useful definition of just what a vision and mission entails.  So in working with the senior executive team at one client we decided to get specific and focus on some simple definitions.

Instead of Vision and Mission, we decided to use Strategic Intent and Strategic Imperative as a way to communicate where the company was headed and what was important.

Strategic Intent refers simply to “what we want for this company” and usually has a limited time frame, say 3 years.   Strategic Imperative, on the other hand, is that one critical activity that, if focused on, will insure the attainment of the strategic intent.

For example.  During the turnaround of Continental Airlines in the mid-1990’s, the Strategic Intent was to “Run a profitable airline we can all be proud of”.  Pretty simple and straight forward, yet powerful when understood and internalized by all employees.  So, what was that one critical ingredient, the Strategic Imperative, that would ensure the delivery of their strategic intent?  Most people think it is access to money since after all this was a turnaround situation where the company was at that time $2.5B in default.

But in 1994 Continental was approaching its third bankruptcy in ten years. Which means they had raised money twice before to get themselves out of the hole, only to wind up back there again.  So why should raising more money this time be any different?

Gordon Bethune and Greg Brenneman, the architects and leaders of the successful turnaround at Continental realized that their strategic imperative was not money (although that was vital) but the employees.  Over the years of successive cost cutting and command-control management styles, the employees became increasingly negative about the company they worked for.  And their negative attitudes about the company and management led to poor and often caustic interactions with customers.  This downward spiral of negative behavior got so bad that many employees ripped the Continental badges off their uniforms so as not to be identified by angry customers.

Continental’s strategic imperative was to rebuild employee trust in management and create a positive corporate culture.  Without this element in place, none of the other business and financial restructuring would last.

Another example is Apple, whose strategic imperative is Cool!  Yes they are a consumer technology company and have sophisticated software and chips in their products, as do many other consumer technology companies.  But if Apple ever abandoned designing products that were Cool, their massive brand equity would quickly erode.

Cool sells.  The largest sales per square foot retailer in the US is Apple.  It’s sales per square foot are nearly twice that of the company in second place, Tiffany & Co, the upscale jewelry chain.  And demand for cool apple products is so great many of its stores are open 24/7.  I know lots of retailers who would kill for this type of customer demand.

Figure out what your Strategic Imperative is and it will help propel you towards your Strategic Intent.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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3 Responses to Strategic Intent and Strategic Imperative . . .

  1. Winch says:

    I agree that there is considerable confusion among my clients about how to work with the terms Vision and Mission. I very much prefer Strategic Intent as a term, but find Strategic Imperative difficult, particularly in international situations where the word “imperative” is difficult. In my work with clients, I have tried to define Vision as what top management (as a starting point) envisions will happen in the world or industry over, say, the next 5 years. The Mission then, is the stated role of the company within that world. The need for such a system is rooted in the requirement that top management get on the same page with regard to the current and future battlefields. It’s quite amazing if you ask such managers individually to describe what will happen in their industries over the next five years – the difference in opinions may be healthy in some respects, but it’s good to have a shared idea of what’s ahead before designing strategies to achieve the company’s mission in life.


  2. Pingback: Competitive Advantage . . . | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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