Four Strategic Guidelines
November 7th, 2019
I was recently helping some clients think about strategy. As part of the training, I tried to convey a number of guiding principles, which often prove useful in developing strategy. Consequently, I thought I would share some of them with you, in the hope that they prove useful when you next embark on developing a strategy.
1. Strategy can be Simple
Strategy has a reputation for complexity and being difficult. The cynic in me feels such a reputation is, in part, generated by the consultancy industry, to justify why their expertise is required. While many look to key strategic ‘thought leaders’ for guidance with their strategy, I believe one of the most useful strategic frameworks comes from the author of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling;
‘I keep six hoest serving men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are
What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who’
To invoke Baloo the bear’s advice to Mowgli in The Jungle Book, strategy is about the ‘bare necessities’. It is about being clear on the key ‘Ws’;
- ‘Why do we do what we do?’
- ‘What positive difference do we make to society and how can we increase it?
- ‘Where are we now?’
- ‘Where do we want to go?’
- ‘Who do we need to get us there?’
- ‘How much will it cost and how long can we give ourselves to get to where we want to go?
It’s also crucial to be clear on ‘What is strategy?’ and ‘Why do strategy?’, but sign up to a training course, or wait for a future blog, if you want clarity on these particular ‘Ws’!
2. Focus on Decisions Rather than the Plan or Process
You’ll note that all the ‘Ws’ above are listed as questions. That is no coincidence. Strategy is all about making decisions. It’s about deciding how best to achieve your overarching goal, or to fulfil your organisation’s vision. Consequently, your strategy will almost certainly benefit from improving the quality of your individual and collective decision making.
Sadly though, many people rush straight to a strategic framework/template and then focus purely on completing its relevant sections. Instead, I’d encourage you to consider some key precursors such as:
- Who should be in the room when you do strategy?
Strategy is situational. It depends on your own organisation’s circumstances and what’s going on in both your direct environment and the wider world. A balance needs to be struck between a sufficiently large number of people to give diverse perspectives, to reduce the likelihood of strategic blind spots, and a small enough number of people so that timely decisions can be made.
Consequently, there is no ‘right’ number of people. However, two rules of thumb that can stand you in good stead are:
(i) Ensure at least some of the people who are going to be ‘doing the doing’ are involved. (ii) Remember that everyone likes to be heard (even if they are not agreed with).
- How can we minimise flaws and embed good practices in decision making?
There is a significant amount of research which highlights common flaws when making decisions. There are also some tried and tested techniques for making good decisions. The links below provide some insight into both:
As referred to in the first link, remember to feel as well as think. A strategy should excite, or at the very least satisfy you. So, in addition to analysis, be sure to tap into your intuition.
3. Embrace Assumption and Improvisation
While the process for developing a strategic plan lies outside the scope of this article, do remember that, regardless of the particular process you use, it should include some degree of analysis and experimentation. This is because I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been able to articulate where they are now and where they want to go, without some sort of analysis/experimentation.
In my experience, analysis and experimentation can often create the most angst and fear during strategic planning. It is the strategic equivalent of the social condition, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. There are endless analytical frameworks and experiments you could employ, so doing them all would mean spending all your time analysing and experimenting, rather than actually implementing the strategy. However, if you can’t do them all, how do you decide which ones to do?
In my experience, the best strategists deal with this reality by being hypothesis driven. They discipline themselves to generate:
(i) The 1 minute ‘answer’
Then (if it’s worth pursing) the:
(ii) The 15 minute ‘answer’
Then (if it’s worth pursing) the
(iii) The 1 hour answer
Then (if it’s worth pursing) the
(iv) The half-day answer
and so it goes on.
The alternative, to do every piece of analysis/experiment fully, would simply take too long.
In my communications training I often state that:
“Assumptions are death to great communication.”
In strategy though, I find assumptions are essential – as long as you’re clear on the assumptions you’re making and how they will be tested.
The other key to successful strategic analysis and experimentation is improvisation. I’m often struck by the reverence with which analytical frameworks are viewed, and the subsequent reluctance to adapt and alter them. Given the situational nature of strategy, I believe there is always value in considering how a particular framework can be adjusted to best cater for your specific situation, or what you believe to be important.
To illustrate, a framework that I have personally adapted is Jim Collins’ ‘Hedgehog Concept’. The concept was born out of Collins’ research on the characteristics of consistently successful organisations. The term ‘Hedgehog Concept’ is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s essay, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. Berlin divided the world into two groups, based on an ancient Greek proverb, which pitted the two animals against each other. He characterised foxes as pursuing many ends at the same time and seeing the world in all its complexity. They are scattered and never integrate their thinking into one unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single principle that guides everything. When faced with challenges, the hedgehog only focuses on things that relate directly to the unifying principle. Consequently, when foxes and hedgehogs are pitted against one another, the hedgehog always wins.
Collins claims that all consistently great organisations exhibit the ‘Hedgehog Concept’. In practice, this means that they operate in the ‘sweet spot’ of what they are passionate about, what they can be excellent at and what will make them enough money. Anything that lies outside the intersection of these three things should be of no interest.
This links back to one the fundamental ‘Ws’ I mentioned at the start of this article:
‘Why do we do what we do?’
I personally believe that a fourth circle needs to be added to Collins’ concept – ‘service’. To me, service means operating in a way that is enriching to staff and society as a whole. This therefore requires a focus on:
(i) The organisation’s physical and cultural environment, so that staff can bring their best selves to work
(ii) How the organisation contributes to enhancing social justice and social capital
(iii) Minimising the negative environmental impact of its operations
While mch’s ‘Hedgehog Concept’ creates a smaller sweet spot, decisions can become even clearer and, in my experience, life becomes all the sweeter for it!
4. The is no one way
As alluded to above, strategy is situational. Consequently, I do not recommend any particular strategic framework. I have developed and implemented strategic plans which are many pages long and include numerous pictures, case studies, charts, graphs, bullet points and action plans. I have also developed and implemented a plan that was hand written and covered two sides of A4. Both were equally successful.
I am comfortable with the format of any plan, as long as it clearly conveys:
(i) Why you’re doing what you’re doing and why it has value
(ii) Where you are now, where you want to go and why you want to go in that particular direction
(iii) A plan of action and how the plan will be reviewed
Furthermore, the best strategists I know have several formats for their plan. They know the strategy is likely to be shared with different audiences, so they tailor the format to give each audience what they want and need. They are also able to tell their strategy as a narrative. They appreciate that people remember stories far better than bullet points and graphs. They also know that stories tap into emotions which are more powerful motivators than pie charts. Furthermore, they understand that, unless they can explain their plan to a lay person in simple, compelling terms, then they’re not clear enough on it themselves.
I hope the above principles prove useful. Do let me know about any frameworks you’ve modified, or even created, to best serve your strategic endeavours.