Reflections on what makes a good strategy

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I’m working with a couple of organisations at the moment on their strategy for the next five years in one case, and ten years in the other.  Perhaps you have been part of such processes.  I wonder what your reflection on them might be?  What do you feel you have learned about the ingredients that come together to make a good strategy?  My reflections focus on the need for a strategy to make a difference.  It might seem obvious that strategies should have impact but I see many that (at least appear) to be designed simply to fulfil a perceived need to have “a strategy”, or as an organisational tool with an essentially bureaucratic purpose – that is, to keep things under control and, maybe, make incremental improvements in an essentially unchanging operation.

As I think back over what is now twenty plus years of helping organisations manage their strategic development I can identify a few ingredients that seem to me crucial but which are sometimes neglected or not understood.  The first is that a strategy requires a destination.  In other words, a good strategy starts with a vision, by which I mean an understanding of the desired future of the organisation.  You need to know where you want to end up, and, unless that is somewhere different from where you are today, you will hardly need a strategy to achieve it.  A vision tells you where you want to go.  A strategy tells you how you plan to get there.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I see quite a few strategy documents that merely make sense of what the organisation is already doing, usually by organising current or approved activities under convenient headings.  It can be useful to be able to identify your key activities (it can help you, for example, to stop doing things that do not fit into your scheme) but it does not really amount to a strategy as I understand the term.

The type of so-called strategy that merely lists and categorises the activities normally undertaken by the organisation is also far too broad and unfocused to be much use in guiding you towards a better future.  Another feature of the effective strategy is that it makes choices.  It decides to do one thing rather than another, or at least, to emphasise one thing over another.  The strategy that merely says we will do what we normally do, only under clearer headings, is unlikely to make much of a difference.  Good strategies say we will do this or that new thing, or perhaps, that we will do this existing thing substantially differently, or, at the very least, that, out of our list of activities, we will put effort into this rather than that thing.  And, of course, these choices will be based on a conviction that they will provide a focus which is likely to deliver a successful transition to the desired future state.

That takes me to my third observation, which is that strategies need to be built on good judgement and discernment about what the organisation needs to do in order to thrive in its world.  This is partly about understanding what is happening in that world and developing considered responses to both threats and opportunities (the well-known SWOT analysis may well be deployed here).  But the necessary corollary of this calculation is to inquire more deeply into the identity of the organisation (its values, its beliefs, its assets) so as to ensure that future action represents not just a response to external challenges but also to internal aspiration and potential.  In other words, a strategy needs to be built on a sense of what the organisation needs to or could become.

And, finally, a strategy is not much use unless it actually drives what happens in the organisation.  Quite often strategies mean something to the specialists who create them but are a mystery, a source of resentment or an irrelevance to everyone else.   Strategy needs buy-in. But how do you achieve it?  The only way is to involve as many people as possible in the development of strategy – not as a post-hoc gesture but in a spirit of genuine collaboration.  Strategies developed this way are not only better supported, they are usually just better. This is because they take seriously the idea that wisdom is spread around the organisation and that a conversation which engages properly with the range of insights and viewpoints available from a range of stakeholders is likely to be more well-directed and more complete.  By all means employ the services of people who are skilled in strategic thinking and planning, but it is not a job that can be simply handed off to “experts”.

I could, no doubt, come up with additional reflections, but I would prefer to hear what you have observed.  You may find that your own reflections add further points or lead you to take issue with mine.  Please do use the comments box below to add your thoughts.