Before we start… an update and an invitation!
Our next Fall Forward masterclass focuses on using AI to help your team create meaningful content without losing the “humanity” and consistency of your brand voice. Six-Point strategist Marnie Kittleson will lead Mastering AI-Driven Brand Voice on Wednesday, October 25 at 12pm EST / 9am PST. Register now to join us! 

Also, last week, we had a great first Fall Forward Masterclass with Six-Point Strategist Ony Mgbeahurike dropping wisdom about the Three Winning Moves Your Brand Needs to Make Now. If you missed the live class, access it on-demand here (password: 8H8CN#wC)!


Looking for a way out

The beat of music and ring of laughter sounded closer, and then as I advanced, it receded. I could hear them calling again for me, and I called back. Louder this time.

I picked up speed, confident I was close. But when I turned the corner, I was staring into his dead eyes and mocking smile, and behind him, rows and rows of more dense corn.

Luckily, the scarecrow in this particular corner of the corn maze was on the map, so I got my bearings and made my way out, my son and his friend giggling about how I had gotten so turned around. 

Corn mazes are all the rage here in New England, and I do love them. It is fun to get safely lost while not straying too far from home. But as I was laughing along with my family, I was also struck that getting turned around and walking for hours only to be met with another dead end is also how many family businesses feel when they are working on strategy. Is there a map we should know about? One right path hidden from us that someone has the key to? One hundred costly wrong turns before we stumble, exhausted, to the exit? 

 

Trapped in the myth of the maze

The biggest mistake family businesses make is treating their strategy like it’s a maze. Here are a few misconceptions about strategy planning I commonly hear:

  1. We don’t want to take a wrong turn, so we won’t make a decision right now. Many businesses with a lot of potential get stuck in place because they are worried that their next move will be wrong and they’ll put the future of the business in jeopardy. So instead of moving ahead, they stay in circular conversations for years, sometimes never even leaving the starting line. This particularly happens when they are thinking about a new market or new channel, because these opportunities usually come up when the core business is strong. It is easier to push off a decision when there is not a sense of urgency. But, as one of my mentors once told me: By not deciding, you have made your decision.
  2. The right decision will lead to the finish line. Leadership teams can get caught thinking about goals as endings. They define success as finding the “right path” that leads, turn by turn, to an ultimate prize. What happens once they reach it is not part of the conversation, and the idea that the path doesn’t need to be smooth or linear does not occur to them. Any friction along the way is considered data that they are moving in the wrong direction and it creates panic or pull-back. There is often a feeling that someone has a map of how to navigate the opportunity correctly, and if they had that map, they would be able to move quickly and easily to their goal.
  3. The wrong turn will mean a dead end. When there is only one right path in their minds, leaders can easily start thinking that “messing up” the opportunity will be the end of it. This can lead to trying to get each step perfect, and waiting for the moment when everything falls into place, which, of course, never comes. It feels like the team is failing, or the leader doesn’t know what they are doing, which leads to frustration and burnout.

 

Mindshift Moment: Not a maze, but a labyrinth!

This fall, I not only navigated a corn maze with my family. I also walked a labyrinth on the grounds of a retreat center on a perfect fall day. If you have never walked a labyrinth, it is a meditative process. They are often made of stones in a natural, garden-like setting, and navigating one is a completely different experience. 

Unlike a maze, which is a confusing pathway with many choices of route and dead ends, a labyrinth is unicursal. It is made of a single route with many twists and turns, but no branches. Every step forward gets you closer to the goal. You can’t take a wrong turn.

 

 

This is truly the best way to think about your strategy. If you think of the path ahead as a single route, not a series of high stakes, right or wrong decisions, then you can be learning and growing constantly. You take a step, you collect information, and you evaluate your next step. Each move takes you closer to your goal, even the ones that feel like missteps, as long as you are paying attention and adjusting your next move based on what you are learning. 

Also, in a labyrinth, the entrance is the same as the exit. When you make it to the middle, which feels like the end, you aren’t done with your journey. You simply turn around and retrace your steps. I think, this too, is more apt to what strategic “success” feels like as a family business. There is no end to the work. You simply have a better idea of what to expect. Maybe it feels a little quicker on the way out. But you aren’t done, and the labyrinth quietly awaits the next generation.

In the corn maze, I couldn’t see around the first turn when I entered. I was completely blind and guessing. In the labyrinth, there was no mystery, no walls. I could see the entire path ahead of me, and if I stood on a nearby hill, elevated a bit, I could even see the shape of the path quite clearly, with its twists and turns. Again, this is strategy. You don’t need a map, or someone to tell you “go left” or “go right.” You need distance and perspective, a crow’s eye-view. You need to be able to gauge how long the path is, and what you might need to prepare for. You need to expect some of the twists and turns, but you don’t need to avoid them. There will be moments when you feel like you are getting further away from the goal, but these are often the most valuable moments because you learn something important that brings you much closer. 

And if I can belabor this metaphor one step further, the purpose of the labyrinth is the journey itself. Labyrinths are not puzzles to be solved. They are meditative tools designed to help you be present to whatever the moment has to offer you. Strategy and evolution for family businesses is similar. There is no one “right answer.” There is only your answer, and your journey. 

I have seen people from the outside watch a family business make decisions and say “it would be so much easier if they would just…” or “wouldn’t it be faster to simply…” but the truth is that businesses with long legacies and the desire to be around for generations to come don’t benefit from “easy” or “fast.” Those shortcuts may help others get quickly through a maze, but you are here for the full journey, and all of its twists and turns. There is no finish line, no trophy, no end to the work. There are just better, more interesting, more satisfying challenges.