A new way to do strategy

The way we do strategy is broken. Especially in organisations that aspire to make a positive social contribution alongside their financial goals. Here are nine indicators that our current approach to strategic planning isn’t working.

  1. Most times it is acknowledged that the process is at least as valuable as the (documented) outcome, yet a glossy, well written and formatted bound document is still perceived as the main measure of success.
  2. These same ‘glossy’ documents, despite the best intensions, gather dust on bookshelves, and are rarely used as a reference for decision-making. Most boards and executive teams only review the Strategic Plan when its time for a new one.
  3. Perceptive people harbour an uneasy suspicion that the ‘real’ discussion is happening in parallel with the formal process.
  4. Staff in values driven organisations see the organisation’s vision and mission as their own. Yet their passions and perspectives are often only superficially engaged. Further, the expectations associated with stakeholder engagement more generally are poorly managed.
  5. The list of company word-smithed vision, mission and values are general and impotent. The vision and mission could apply to any organisation in the sector and the values usually relate to operational behaviour rather than the organisation’s reason for being.
  6. The simplified approach to strategy is to articulate ‘where we are going and how we are going to get there’. This typically includes a set of measurable objectives relating to size, market or program impact that amount to little more than aspirational guesses. The ‘how we are going to get there’ rarely identifies much more than ‘try harder’. Due to the rapidly changing external environments, strategic planning based on this simplification, is a meaningless exercise.
  7. The strategic plan fails to say ‘how’. A strategy that finishes at Vision, Mission, Values and Strategic Objectives is bad strategy. Unfortunately, this is true of most strategic plans.
  8. Refreshing the strategic plan is seen mostly as a ‘3 year’ administrative exercise.
  9. The foundation for good strategic thinking and implementation is a healthy, cohesive leadership team. Instead of dealing with weakness and threats in this area, a strategic planning process is sometimes used as a proxy for the more difficult relational work that needs to be done.

A new approach is needed.

We start with the end in mind: a good strategy;

  1. Inspires and motivates
  2. Provides clarity and focus
  3. Guides ongoing strategic decision-making
  4. Is the benchmark for leadership accountability.

The elements of a strategy that ticks the above boxes is likely to include:

(Note that we are not talking about a document, as much as dimensions or streams of strategic thinking and work.)

  1. The background story, current context and parametres within which the strategy applies.
  2. A clear statement of the values that drive and guide the organisations’ contribution. These values are not so much about operations (integrity, respect etc) but about reason for being. The personal values of staff, current organisational culture and desired culture will be key inputs.
  3. A logic map that links the organisations highest level aspirations to programs and activities. The logic map will include statements of assumptions about environmental factors that allow the logic to operate, as well as metrics associated with the stated outcomes along the way. The logic map will replace traditional statements of vision and mission.
  4. Seasonal strategic directions as answers to the short and medium term strategic questions for the organisation. These will include a committed approach and tactical activity.
  5. Scenario planning, anticipating the longer term trajectory of the organisation.
  6. A narrative that ties together all of the above.
  7. An organisational design to implement the above.
  8. In a parallel with the above, the organisation will have a three year rolling business plan that operationalizes the strategy.

And two more things;

Firstly, critical to the effective development of an organisation’s strategy is a cohesive leadership team. The cultivation of an increasingly healthy team that trusts each other and operates effectively will be both a foundation and by-product of a well executed strategy process. Secondly, a thorough stakeholder engagement plan will properly engage internal and external groups – not just for the outcome of buy-in, but because leadership believes better thinking will happen when diverse perspectives are consulted.

It’s time to lay the old way to rest – unless your organisation belongs in the last century.


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