How do you do, Strategy?

It is World Strategy Week from November 3 – 7, 2014 (check out @WorldStratWeek on Twitter).

I didn’t even know that this virtual, global initiative existed until the other day. Anyway, learning about this did spur me on to this blog piece. No doubt there will be masses of information shared in the coming week about what’s hot, what’s not and what’s in and what’s out with strategy. It can get a bit confusing as well so I thought there was a space to get back to some of the basics on strategy and to re-engage with what it always was there to do.

The world in which strategies now need to be effective is changing every day…

We may all know, but probably don’t appreciate, how significantly the world is changing around us and the pace at which this is all happening. There is much more volatility, disruption and more uncertainty. Just think about how astute organisations like AirBnB are shifting the paradigm and try to think back to last time you went to a video shop on the high street. New organisations are being formed daily and re-shaping themselves in the ‘age of the customer’ where customers learn and share insights and rate and review products and services that everyone can share. This is a cultural shift for many and there are constant threats of disruptive inputs into once sacred markets.

We’re also going beyond mere customer satisfaction. Organisations are now trying to achieve a consistent customer experience, and are striving not only to delight their customers but also to surprise them. B2B organisations are now appreciating more and more that emotional decisions drive their customers’ buying behaviour as much as it does in B2C transactions.

There is also much more written these days about the acceptance of failing early and that the pace of innovation i.e. getting on and doing and learning from doing, outstrips the pace of deliberation i.e. sitting around waiting for all the ducks to be in a row before actually doing anything.

These dynamics are forcing strategists and strategies into a constant ‘Beta-state’, and this is needed if organisations are to be resilient and survive. Healthcare colleagues in particular should take note – I see a lot of complacency around these realities in healthcare organisations who don’t appreciate these market dynamics and if they do they really aren’t too sure how to respond.

These observations might help…

I get a sense that we need to shake hands with ‘strategy’ again and get to know it better. Things can get too complicated sometimes when we try to do too much. To make strategies deliver in this highly volatile environment, we need to step back to the basics. So, to help unclutter the space, I always find it useful to remember these key concepts when considering ‘doing’ strategy and hope they help us re-engage with strategy and what it’s actually there to do:

  1. Good strategy is about defining a problem and then actually doing stuff to deal with the problem. Too often you see strategies being articulated as intangible goals or aspirations e.g. ‘our strategy is to grow by 20% year on year’ or a healthcare favourite of mine ‘our strategy is to put patients at the heart of what we do!’ Neither of these examples is good enough. You and your organisation need to understand exactly how these goals are going to be achieved. So, try to talk about strategy by using as many verbs as you can muster: do, act, allocate, configure, shift, place, arrange…etc. These will help to focus the mind on the activities necessary to achieve your aims.
  2. Don’t think about strategy as the analysis of masses of information but rather as the synthesis of information and intelligence and drawing insights from this – this will help you diagnose the problem that you are trying to solve.
  3. Before launching into a new strategic direction and asserting new market positions, an organisation needs to take one step back and be very clear about its purpose and why it exists. The days of businesses thinking that they exist purely to generate shareholder wealth are numbered in our digital economy. An honest reflection of the organisational purpose will be quite revealing, trust me.
  4. If you are going to do strategic planning and development, do it from the ground up. Involve your teams from the ward to the Board. During the strategy process, allow your teams’ voices to be heard. They will have insights that surprise you. Also allow them to try out new things. Doing and learning is a sure way to deal with uncertainty and will build resilience in your teams. And don’t be afraid to fail. If you do, try to fail early in the process and not later. Tim Harford in his book ‘Adapt: why success always starts with failure’ coins a great term ‘survivable failure’. Failure should be part of growing but should not bring the whole house down when it happens.
  5. The last point leads very well into this final and most important consideration. Right at the top of all of this we must remember that culture trumps strategy every time. Peter Drucker is famous for saying ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner’ and it is true; if you don’t have your staff aligned and feeling valued and wanting to deliver for you, your strategy means nothing. Happy staff  = Happy Patients (and customers).


For more on organisational culture and how to tackle this moving target, take a look at some of the writings of Torben Rick. I particularly like his 80’s throwback in showing Pac Man (culture) gobbling up the Ghost (strategy) to illustrate the point!