Three pre-conditions for developing a new strategy

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In two weeks I will walk into the offices of an unfamiliar organisation to talk about their desire and need for a new strategy. For reasons known only by my subconscious, I woke up early this morning thinking about the conversation. Or more precisely, I was going through in my mind the requisite conditions that would make the effort worthwhile. And that’s before we even talk about the implementation of said strategy.

So, here are three conditions, without which it is not worth the effort embarking on developing a strategy. If any one of these is missing, don’t waste the time, effort or money.

1. Cohesion in the leadership group

Developing a strategy without leadership cohesion is like pouring water into a colander and expecting it to fill up. The leadership group, (the Executive Team, the Board or whoever is owning the work) is the container in which the research, debate and decision-making will happen. If the group is not aligned and operating with a foundation of trust, the best efforts to develop, let alone implement a strategy will achieve lip service agreement at best and white-anting at worst.

If the strategy development process is designed and facilitated well, it will help with building cohesion, but the foundations of trust must at least provide a basis on which to work together with good will. Functional unity at a minimum.

2. The CEO and effective visionary (if they are not the same) must be fully engaged in the process.

Strategy, if it is to have any traction in affecting the way the organisation operates must be owned by those who are steering, either by positional authority or relational influence. And the only way for genuine buy-in to be achieved is intimate engagement in the nitty gritty of the process.

A strategy cannot be ‘sold’ to a CEO as a package, so if they are not willing or able to commit significant time and energy to the process, do something else but don’t formulate a new strategy.

3. It’s about the strategy not the artefact.

Oh dear. How much do we love process and outputs, especially in large organisations! Unfortunately, it is too easy and too common for the process to end up being all about a good document rather than a good strategy.

At one level this is excusable, because strategy is useless if not communicated. But a strategy exists independently of any attempt to document it. For the sake of absolute clarity, articulating it in words or diagrams is crucial, but they are only a representation of the strategy, they are not the strategy.

The best indication of strategic clarity is that everyone in the organisation, when prompted, will give the same answer when asked about the strategy. Slight variations that account for language preference are good, but the substance will be consistent and succinct.

If the starting point is a template, beware. Be-very-ware.

So where do you start then? I often ask what has prompted the need for a new strategy. The most common answer is, ‘our old one is due to expire.’ Great, but that’s a pretty low bar.

Why do you need a strategy? What are the business issues you need to solve? What questions needs to be answered in order to solve those issues? Articulating these questions is the key starting point for strategy development. In most cases they will be tricky questions and the pursuit of answers will be interesting, even compelling for most people in the organisation. If not, you might not want to bother with an elaborate engagement process. Unless of course you are happy and motivated to oversee an administrative process that ticks the boxes and gives you something at the end to sit on the coffee table in reception.

Yawn.