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How Strategy is Really Developed

February 9th, 2017

In my view, strategy provides the detail as to how an organisation proposes to achieve its overarching vision and mission. If you pick up a typical ‘How To’ guide to strategy, it is often presented as a neat step-by-step process or framework. Follow the prescribed steps and out will pop your strategy. As a former associate at the international management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company (a firm that specialises in strategy), I was taught that while there were different ways of ‘doing’ strategy, there should always be a process of some sort. While I still believe that there can be real value in developing strategy through a formal process, this blog post offers a less formal and more meandering route to developing strategy. Such an approach is illustrated through describing a series of events that assisted mch in making a recent strategic decision.

The Ordinary Event

I recently finished writing mch’s annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. CSR involves operating a business in a manner that meets the ethical, legal, commercial and public expectations which society has of business. Upon completion, I reflected upon the year just gone and compared it, in CSR terms, to previous years. One of the areas of particular reflection was community engagement, which in mch’s case took the form of charity donations and volunteering. From such reflection, the following question formed:

‘How could mch increase the positive impact of its community engagement?’

With no immediate solution forthcoming, the question was consumed by the more immediate, day-to-day questions mch faces. In retrospect though, this ordinary event planted the seed which led to mch’s new initiative. Despite strategists often extolling the virtues of ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking outside the box’, I believe good strategy can start from simply taking the time to reflect upon the existing, ordinary work that is being done (or not being done).

The New Event

Within days of completing the CSR report, I came across an initiative called the Percent Club. This club is aimed at businesses based in Bath, England (the city closest to mch’s offices). A key requirement of membership is that a business gives at least a percent of its profits to charity, whether through financial or in-kind donations. To encourage such giving, the club organises regular events at which local charities give a brief presentation outlining their work. mch has always donated well over one percent of its pre-tax profits to charities and so was readily able to join. Doing so allowed me to attend one of the club’s events, at which the impact of in-kind support, rather than just donations, was really stressed. Specifically, members were asked to consider whether any of their specialist goods or services would be valued by charities. Not surprisingly, the event reminded me of the question I had asked myself upon completing mch’s CSR report. However, given the event’s focus on in-kind support, a more nuanced question arose:

‘What combination of financial donations, volunteering and in-kind support would lead to mch having the greatest positive impact on community engagement?’

The Complication

Being an organisation that works exclusively with Third Sector organisations, providing in-kind support in mch’s core work of staff development has the potential to be problematic – if it offers one organisation in-kind or pro bono support, then full fee-paying clients may expect the same. For this reason, mch has previously limited its in-kind support to discrete mentoring sessions for individuals who have no means of paying. Instead I have focussed on volunteering in areas that fall outside mch’s core work e.g. volunteering for literacy lessons at the local school.

The new event highlighted that there could be scope to improve mch’s community engagement, but it also raised a complication. Complications invariably arise when developing strategy; I’d be worried if they didn’t. Complications indicate you’re on the right track, as fundamentally any worthwhile strategy should be about removing pain and/or maximising benefit. Complications can simply indicate you’ve come across one of the pains.

The Chance Encounter

A day or so after the Percent Club event, I received a call from a small, local charity enquiring about communication training. They had been given my details by Sue, a resident in my village. Sue had only recently learnt about ‘what I did’ on account of us both attending a local event. For me, this illustrates how you can never tell where insights for strategy will arise.

After ascertaining the charity’s need, I gave a brief outline of how I felt mch could address it. The caller seemed really pleased with the outline, but as soon as we got onto costs, it became apparent that they had insufficient funds for the training.

Looking to Others who are Similar

Such a call is not uncommon and the ending never feels satisfactory. However, the challenge of finding a fair and simple way of working with both small, local organisations and large, national ones is not unique to mch. Realising this is important, as sometimes the best strategic solution comes from observing what similar organisations are doing and then copying them. Consequently, I have reflected on the fact that other staff development organisations offer a ‘small charity rate’ for their services. However, I have never been inclined to go down this route – I have a single preparation day rate and a single presentation day rate. In part, this reflects my desire for simplicity. It also avoids getting into the hazy area of what constitutes ‘small’. Finally, the biggest cost within mch’s fees is my time and I believe the size of an organisation has no bearing on the value of it.

Engaging with Others who are Different

In addition to observing how similar organisations address an issue, I also find that there can be real value in discussing strategic plans with those outside of my specialism and/or sector. So it was in this instance, as around this time I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the partner of a small firm of patent attorneys. Knowing her well, I was able to be candid and to articulate the issue within a ‘safe space’ - one in which I knew I would not be judged. Through a combination of active listening and comparisons with her own work, the strategic question became even more nuanced:

‘If there was some way to provide in-kind support to charities that would otherwise be unable to afford it, how could such in-kind support be maximised?’

Taking in the Broader Landscape

As someone who subscribes to a sector-specific journal, articles continually reinforce the challenging economic and statutory environment charities face. Within a staff development context, the challenging environment makes it ever more important for charities to have skilled staff. In short, there is a need to provide more staff development to more people. However, increasing demand for services, combined with reduced resources, makes staff development more difficult.

Looking at the broader landscape made me appreciate that the challenging environment for charities was unlikely to go away, and neither were the unsatisfactory calls with charities with a clear training need but an insufficient budget.

A readily proposed solution to these challenges is greater collaboration: generate economies of scale by sharing resources. Despite this undeniable logic, the practice of greater collaboration is often far harder than the principle. One difficulty can be developing the requisite trust for successful collaboration. Also, an initial increase in costs may be required before savings start to be made. Furthermore, there can be complications in managing resources that you don’t actually have authority over.

However, given that the training element of staff development can be quite discrete, it struck me that if charities joined forces to access training, they might not face the collaboration problems outlined above. Furthermore, such collaboration would lead to more people being trained per training course, thus maximising the positive impact of any given training session.

Rather paradoxically, looking at the broader landscape helped me narrow down the type of in-kind support that would be most suitable. I’ve found such paradoxes to be common in strategy.

The Initial Solution

Based on all the above, a potential answer to my strategic question emerged, namely that provided at least two charities partnered together to present a shared training need, mch would split the cost evenly between itself and the partners. Consequently, if a training need was presented by two charities that would ordinarily cost £1,200 to deliver, mch would make an in-kind donation of £400 and only charge each charity £400.

Such a solution acknowledged the reality that many charities do not have sufficient funds to access quality training. The required partnership working would also maximise the number of training beneficiaries.

Reality Checking and Considering One’s Appetite for Risk

Since mch works exclusively with Third Sector organisations, its business model is based on what is sustainable rather than what is lucrative. Consequently, there are genuine limits to the amount of in-kind support it can give. My initial sense was that mch would not be inundated with requests to take up the proposed offer. However, I’ve learnt that it is worth asking a few ‘What if?’ questions when developing strategy. In this case, an obvious one was:

‘What if mch is inundated with requests for this offer?’

For a number of reasons, such a scenario would be best avoided. However, such a risk is readily mitigated by setting clear expectations. Consequently, the initial solution was iterated so that the offer would initially be available up to twice a year on a first-come, first-served basis.

Looking Inside

Strategy often focuses on external impact. However, in my experience a successful strategy depends as much on internal motivations as it does on external opportunities and needs. Consequently, for any strategic initiative, it pays to have a compelling answer to the, ‘What’s in it for me?’ question that almost all staff will be thinking, even if they don’t say it.

Running concurrently with the above ruminations to increase mch’s community engagement was a personal desire to increase the amount of work I conduct locally (so that I was away from my children less often). Consequently, I felt that incorporating this desire into the solution would make it more motivating and sustainable. To this end, the initial solution was iterated further so that the offer would only be available to charities in the Bath area of England.

Being Comfortable with the Flaws

Rarely is a solution perfect. Fortunately, it very rarely needs to be. That said, I’ve found it useful to be aware of and comfortable with the flaws in any strategy. There are obvious flaws to mch’s proposed offer. For example, the likelihood of two organisations having the same training need at the same time (and knowing that they both have the same need) is low. There’s also a risk that the offer will not go to those in most need and that it will cannibalise my business, i.e. the offer will be taken up by two charities that would have been able to pay separately for the training.

While I accept these (and several other) flaws, I am still comfortable with the offer, as at its heart it provides an opportunity for certain charity staff to gain access to training that they otherwise wouldn’t .

Bringing it All Together

The result of this meandering path is that mch is excited to be piloting a new initiative for local charities. Essentially, provided at least two local charities can partner together to present a shared training need, mch will split the cost evenly between itself and the partners. For practical and personal reasons, this offer is only open to charities in the Bath area of England and will initially run twice a year on a first-come, first-served basis. Consequently, if you’re a local charity, please get in touch!

Epilogue

On reflection, I see that some of the events and experiences outlined in the above meandering path would find themselves in many formal strategic frameworks, albeit under a different name e.g. ‘Looking to Others’ and ‘Taking in the Broader Landscape’ could quite accurately be translated into business speak as ‘Market Analysis’.

Furthermore, I think it is fair to say that I was already aware of many aspects of this issue right at the beginning of the meandering path. However, it took a series of events and experiences (many of which were completely unrelated to my ‘day job’) to make something happen. Crucially, it also required time - time to attend the events and have the experiences and time to reflect upon them. A favourite quote of mine by the philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, John Dewey, seems particularly relevant:

“We do not learn from experience…..We learn from reflecting on an experience.”

Some readers may consider that the above approach to strategy may be appropriate for very small organisations such as mch, but simply not practical for larger ones. If you are one of them, I would certainly acknowledge that, in larger organisations, there is a greater need to coordinate the strategic effort and that formality and process is often necessary for such coordination. However, I would direct you to a book called Obliquity by John Kay (a former mch ‘Resource of the Quarter’). The central premise of Kay’s book is that goals/strategies are best achieved indirectly. For me, a key insight from the book is that no matter how sophisticated your strategic frameworks or how much intellectual ‘horsepower’ you have, life is just too complex to make detailed and accurate plans for well into the future. I’d encourage you to read the book as it challenges some of the core assumptions that many managers and leaders make when developing strategy. Alternatively, an essay John Kay has written on obliquity can be viewed here.

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Building Resilience in Tough Times

November 18th, 2016

Charity sector research shows that stress levels at work are on the rise, but while stress is inevitable, its negative impact is not. The following article, which I wrote for Charity Choice, shares some of the techniques that can help you stay focused and build resilience. While aimed primarily at fundraisers, the techniques are applicable to all roles in all sectors: https://www.charitychoice.co.uk/the-fundraiser/fundraising-in-tough-times-how-to-shape-up-for-the-challenge/673

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Why I’m a Happy Luddite

March 7th, 2016

This is the model of mobile phone I use. It first came out in 2010 and I liked it so much that I bought two more of them for when the inevitable replacements are required. As I see it, a major benefit of my phone is that it does not automatically tell me if I have a new email: I have to press a button if I want to find this out. My phone’s design is such that I couldn’t automate this process even if I wanted to do so. A year ago I visited a mobile phone shop and discovered that such a feature is far rarer in more modern phones. The visit was at the behest of a tech-savvy friend who, despairing of my phone, implored me to consider an upgrade. Upon picking up a shiny new phone and holding it up against my current one, I began by asking the sales person:

What’s the main benefit of this phone, relative to my current one?”

After trying (and failing) to disguise their surprise and bemusement that someone was still using my model of phone, they answered:

“Well it will immediately tell you if you have a new email.”

To which I responded:

“I can’t think of anything worse. Is it possible to switch that feature off?”

The by now dumbfounded salesperson stated they’d:

“Have to check.” as they “Never got asked that.”

Based on the above, it’s unlikely to surprise you that I am regularly described as a Luddite. The term Luddite relates to a group of 19th century English textile workers. It is a term that is often used to infer being ‘anti-technology’. However, the Luddites were only against technology if it had a negative impact on their quality of life, or if it threatened livelihoods.

While I accept that technology can make certain occupations obsolete, I certainly share a Luddite’s apprehension of the impact technology can have on our quality of life. I am, though, a happy Luddite. I find that I am happier when I have regular periods of being non-contactable. It is also good for controlling the ego – time and again I experience the reality of not being important enough to have missed anything significant during my time ‘off-line’. Furthermore, having time ‘off-line’ not only makes me more productive when I’m ‘on-line’, it also makes me more present in face to face conversations with others.

Over the last couple of years, I have been particularly struck by the impact of technology on face to face conversations. Unfortunately, it is increasingly common to experience ‘stop-start’ conversations with friends, as our face to face conversation runs in parallel with multiple text and Facebook conversations. In my professional work, it is common to see every single one of my training participants using their phones for the duration of scheduled breaks.

I generally consider myself as someone who is happy to ‘tread their own path’. Recently however, I was increasingly feeling in a minority of one in relation to my relationship with technology. So it was heartening to come across the book, ‘Alone Together’. Written by social psychologist Sherry Tuckle, it outlines the paradox that while technology enables us to be more connected than ever before, it may also be contributing to greater loneliness and straining our personal relationships. For this reason ‘Alone Together’ is mch’s ‘Resource of the Quarter’. For those who want a briefer overview of Tuckle’s research, click here.

Since raising this issue with colleagues, it’s been reassuring to learn that I’m not in a minority of one. It’s also been uplifting to learn how other individuals and organisations are balancing connectedness with solitary time or uninterrupted group time. For example, the fundraising department of one of mch’s clients is experimenting with a ‘golden hour’ every week. During this hour, staff switch off their emails, do not make any calls and go out of the main office if they need to receive a call.

I’d be interested to know if you are taking steps to maintain such a balance. Please add your comments below.

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Six questions you should always ask when negotiating

December 17th, 2015

Negotiation is viewed by many as a ‘Dark Art’. It is something that many approach with a sense of trepidation. The cynic in me often feels such perceptions are perpetuated to justify the five figure fees of many negotiation courses. This is because in my experience, comfort and success in negotiation can be greatly improved by answering some very simple and practical questions:

1. Is this the right time to negotiate?

Have you ever had the experience of someone phoning you, as you’re rushing to get ready for an important event, or as you’re trying to get food on the table for a hungry family? How receptive are you to the call? For most people, it’s ‘not very receptive at all’. In such circumstances, it is often best not to get involved in a conversation and instead reschedule for another time.

A negotiation is simply a specific type of conversation and so follows the same general rules as all conversations. If it starts well, it often finishes well. If it starts badly, it can be very difficult to ‘get it back’.

Consequently, it is worth asking yourself whether now is the right time for negotiating and explicitly asking the other party whether it’s the right time for them too.

2. Is this the right location to negotiate?

Many a fundraiser will tell you that asking for a donation is often easier when the would be recipients are physically in the background and visibly benefiting from the charity’s work. Far more practically, choosing a location where distractions are kept to a minimum can greatly increase negotiation success.

3. Is the person you’re negotiating with in a position to decide?

I have seen some outstanding examples of negotiation completely wasted because upon reaching a ‘deal’ one of the parties says; “I’m just going to have to OK this with my boss.”

When this happens the negotiation often has to start all over again with the boss and much of the time already committed is wasted. Consequently, it’s important to check that your counterpart can make a decision. If they can’t, it is perfectly reasonable to insist that the negotiation does not start until the decision maker is present.

4. Are you the right person to be negotiating for your organisation?

In an ideal world, issues such as your age, gender, nationality and status would have no bearing on your perceived capability to negotiate. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and the preconceived ideas held by your counterpart may mean that someone else in your organisation will get a better deal than you.

5. Is it worth negotiating?

It may be that your counterpart’s preconceptions/discriminatory views are sufficiently contra to your and/or your organisation’s values that continuing negotiation becomes untenable. Even, when such preconceptions do not exist, it is still worth asking yourself whether negotiating is worth the effort. Essentially, you should consider negotiating when doing so can potentially provide you and your negotiating partner with something better than a non-negotiated outcome. However sometimes the alternatives to negotiating are preferential. In such circumstances saying ‘No’ to negotiation is the right answer.

6. Have you devoted sufficient time to your BATNA?

The styles, processes and skills for negotiation are best developed through training and practice rather than through a blog post. However, a stand-out requirement for any negotiation is a good BATNA: Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

Taking the time and effort to develop a strong BATNA is crucial to successful negotiation. Psychologically it can have a profound effect, as a strong BATNA allows you to approach a negotiation knowing that, even if it fails, the alternative is still OK.

To quote the late publisher Felix Denis (a renowned negotiator);

“You have to persuade yourself that you absolutely don’t care what happens. I absolutely promise you, in every serious negotiation, the man or woman who doesn’t care is going to win.”

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The Ws of Leadership

September 17th, 2015

Peter Drucker was one of the great modern day thinkers on management and leadership. In recognition of his work, he obtained a Presidential Medal and received numerous honorary doctorates. Streets and buildings were even named after him. Yet despite the level of insight he provided in so many areas, his contribution to elements of leadership were, well, a little underwhelming:

“The only thing you can say about a leader, is that a leader is somebody who has followers.”

Not exactly a blinding insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Drucker is not alone. Thousands, if not millions of individuals and organisations have attempted to define leadership. mch is one of them and I too have found a concise and meaningful definition for leadership to be rather elusive. mch’s definition is perhaps most useful when applied in comparative terms;

‘Leadership is deciding what to do and articulating the decision well to those who matter…..

..while…

…Management is implementing the decision well, which often involves getting work done through others.’

To me, such a comparison provides one reason for the ‘fuzziness’ that surrounds leadership: very few people are ‘pure’ leaders - they have to do some management too. Equally, many people with ‘manager’ in their title often have to make and articulate decisions, whether they are operational, financial, organisational or cultural. Furthermore, many without ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or ‘executive’ in their title require a blend of both the above definitions; parenthood springs to mind!

When I struggle to gain clarity on a central management or leadership issue from the ‘usual suspects’ of business schools and consultancy firms, I look to more unconventional sources. A great help in this regard has been Rudyard Kipling, author of many famous works including The Jungle Book.

Specifically, there is a quote from a Kipling poem that often helps to test and clarify my understanding of a topic and it is as follows;

I keep six honest serving men

(they taught me all I knew);

Their names are ‘What’ and ‘Why’ and ‘When’

And ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’.

I’ve found that the ‘W’ questions; ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘When?’, ‘How?’, ‘Where?’ and ‘Who?’ are crucial to obtaining clarity on any issue. I’ve also found that, for certain issues, some ‘W’ questions are more important or relevant than others. In my view this is true of leadership.

The What and Why of Leadership

While there can be merit in trying to agree upon what leadership is; spending hours debating a definition is rarely time well spent. Instead, there is a case for moving swiftly on to the next ‘W’, ‘Why?’ Again, there can be much debate on such a question, but in my view the answer is relatively simple; ‘because it’s necessary and important for success’.

I think the sports journalist, Robert Kitson, put it well when he wrote:

“Leadership is one of those things which doesn’t really matter until you look around and realise that you do not have any.”

When

The ‘When?’ question for leadership invokes an interesting dilemma, as it implicitly asks whether the leadership role should constantly remain with the same person. The importance of delegation follows on from such a question.

A common characteristic of all the great leaders I’ve met is that they’ve known when to lead and when not to lead. Doing the latter often requires the most courage and certainly the most trust. The businessman Philip Flynn summarises it well:

“There are always three leadership choices: 1. Lead 2. Follow 3. Get out of the way

All are valid depending on the context.”

How

The ‘How’ of Leadership often receives the most column inches and there are numerous books extolling a set number of steps, secrets or ingredients to successful leadership. Consultancy firms also conduct significant amounts of research on how leaders operate, and a recent study by the firm McKinsey & Company, surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organisations around the world. The study, entitled ‘Decoding Leadership: What really matters’, suggested there were four key behaviours that accounted for 89% of leadership effectiveness:

  1. Being supportive
  2. Being strongly orientated on results
  3. Seeking different perspectives
  4. Solving problems effectively

I don’t know about you, but the accuracy with which they quantify effectiveness (89%!) raises both an eyebrow and a wry smile.

In addition to competencies, ‘How’ also involves one’s style of leadership. There are numerous leadership styles put forward and this blog is not the place to review them all, but for those with an interest in this area, I recommend the book ‘Primal Leadership’ by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

There is general consensus that no single leadership style is superior to all others and a significant amount of research suggests the best leaders are able to vary their style according to circumstances. Furthermore, when it comes to great leaders, whatever their style, they remain authentic. For me, the importance of authenticity is encapsulated in the following two quotes:

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”

Anon

“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”

Adlai Stevenson

Where

They say ‘Location, Location, Location’ are the three most important considerations when buying a house. I’m not sure the same applies to leadership, but great leaders are invariably tuned into their environment. They sense where there is a need for public displays of leadership and where a quiet word with an individual is more appropriate. They also understand that leadership cannot be switched off at their convenience. While people will not always do what a leader asks, they’re invariably listening and watching the leader. A great leader understands the role model status that this implies. As the trainer David Cotton puts it:

“Everything that you say and do gives permission for your team to say and do the same things.”

Who

For me this is perhaps the most fundamental ‘W’ question when it comes to leadership.

Are you the right person to lead? Do you want to lead?

In my mentoring and coaching work, these are often the central questions leaders continually ask themselves. Leadership is not for everyone and without both the requisite competencies and an authentic motivation for the role, it is best left alone. Not just for your sake, but for those would-be followers.

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