Strategy development, and its associated activities, is an interesting and rewarding area when it comes to consulting. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, but some solutions are certainly more elegant than others. By its nature, strategy development requires creativity and imagination, and provides the opportunity to think outside the square. Bringing these elements together, when you get it right, can be a very rewarding experience.
Strategies come in different shapes and sizes: short and sharp; or detailed and in-depth. Audience, purpose and outcomes are all influencing factors, but in its most basic form a strategy needs to have three distinct parts:
- Articulation of the starting point, how things are currently working today
- A definition of the future state, and why it addresses the need for the strategy in the first place
- A clear pathway leading from the starting point to the future state.
When developing a strategy, the temptation can be to dive in and begin with defining the starting point. After all, it does seem a logical place to begin. The challenge of starting with the current state when building a strategy is knowing what to leave in and what to take out. If you were planning a trip to a new destination, you wouldn’t sit in your car, study the roads around you, pick one and start driving. You’d refer to a map, take into account where you were going, and select the direction in which to head based on that information.
Another dimension you’d consider is why you’re going in the first place. Is driving the best option? Will it get you there on time? Can you afford to fly? How can you make an informed decision about the mode of travel when you don’t know your destination? The starting point is important, but don’t get bogged down there.
The really interesting part is where the strategy will take us. The future state.
Future state is essentially a conceptual thing, so it’s important to describe it in a way that people can relate to. It should be universally understood by a broad audience, ensuring nothing gets lost in transition. It’s also important that the message is clear and logical, without the audience needing to join any dots for themselves.
As well as being conceptual, the future state also needs to be relevant. The best way to do this is to link it back to something that is already accepted, such as a business or corporate plan. Doing this justifies the objectives the future state will deliver, whereas trying to create something new runs the risk of devaluing the strategy.
Similarly, the strategy won’t be very effective if it exists in isolation from the rest of an organisation. A discovery process will provide relevance and meaning to an otherwise academic exercise. Discovery is about talking to people and, equally important, listening to what they have to say. It can’t be haphazard either, it needs to be considered, targeted and purposeful.
Every organisation is making change, introducing new capabilities, improving or refreshing. These activities need to be understood and included as part of the overall strategy. What is typically uncovered in these conversations is organisation’s undocumented strategy. This, coupled with the future state, provides the start and the end pieces of the strategy puzzle. The remaining piece is knowing how to actually affect change.
This is the ‘doing’ part and its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. If a strategy is to be genuinely useful, it needs to be actionable. These actions are informed by the starting point, and their outcomes ultimately create the future state. They should be organised and sequenced in a logical way. The specifics will be unique to the strategy, but they need to inform and guide the people responsible for execution.
The recipe for a good strategy isn’t that hard to follow. The challenging, or perhaps artful, parts are:
- Getting the discovery right, ensuring all required information is collected from the right set of stakeholders. Also, it’s important to be able to identify what’s valuable and what’s just interesting: separating the wheat from the chaff.
- Aligning future state to meaningful objectives and demonstrating why the future state is the right one.
- Simplifying the message and making it relevant. It can’t be disconnected or too conceptual.
- Making sure you’re taking people on the journey. Effective engagement and communication will ensure people are invested.
Strategic work requires a certain way of thinking, but if it’s done well it can affect real change, which isn’t an opportunity afforded every day.
This post is by Andrew McLintock, Chief Strategy Officer of CTO Group.