The past two weeks, I’ve experienced a type of strategic whiplash. Let me explain. For the past few months, I’ve been promoting the merits of breaking all the rules and driving big changes…even if you don’t have all the answers or guarantees. My frame of reference is the incredible track record of innovation in social media at my former employer (Dell), which never would have occured if we had followed all the rules and procedures or tried to justify our plans through traditional analysis – such as ROI or SWAT metrics. We launched programs in perpetual beta mode knowing they would have to be refined and adapted. We ignored artificial timelines based on outdated, internal priorities and stretched the envelope on issues around policies and procedures. The key lesson was that in some cases the prevailing norms and rules need to be ignored or adapted, lest they stifle any real innovation or change. It worked.

But just this past week I heard accounts of several examples of large, corporate initiatives that encountered problems or foundered because they were ill-thought and premature – the fire-aim-fix model. So what is it, I asked myself, do you ponder and plan or do you forge ahead and break some glass?

The answer that emerged for me – and most of my colleagues – is that there are valuable lessons to learn from both camps. To drive real change and innovation, there will be occasions when traditional rules and timelines have to be stretched or ignored. And old rules and reservations have to be questioned and justified on a regular basis to ensure they are still valid and relevant. But there will always be room for thoughtful due diligence and planning. (I’ll even admit that some of the typical consulting tools can be useful here…if they are shorn of the usual jargon and complexity.) The critical strategic questions for any initiative – why are we doing this? what problem are we solving? what are the implications and benefits? – are more valid than ever. And thinking through how a program will evolve from start to finish is common sense, as long as the planning process does not become more important than the outcome. Asking the tough questions up front does not preclude moving fast and breaking some rules…but it does dramatically increase the chances of success.   

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