Reflections on what makes a good strategy

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

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.

Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

I recently helped organise a conference about “transformational change”.  The discussion ranged widely but two questions that came up have stayed with me. The first concerns the degree to which change can be “managed” and the second, whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”.  I’d like to reflect a little on those questions, starting with the second.

The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches.  They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising.  Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”.  They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.

I’m not so sure.  I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here.  I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change. Continue reading

Addressing resistance to change

I recently circulated John Beckford’s blog  challenging some of the ways in which organisations delay or avoid necessary changes.  I got positive feedback from several people but also this comment: “I think much more management consultancy needs to attend to delivery and some of the deeper resistances that lie within any one of us. The how-to seems critical”.  As I said to my correspondent at the time, that gives me a clear steer on the subject for my next blog.  Here is a link to John’s blog – I see my response to my reader’s comments very much as a companion piece:

So, for this blog we will assume that the organisational leadership has recognised the need to make a significant change but feels concern about the extent to which such a project will be supported or meet resistance from individuals and groups in the organisation, including, perhaps, those in leadership at the next level down in the hierarchy.  How should those leading change proceed? Continue reading

Whose business is it anyway?

The collapse of BHS has been met with dismay.  Pensions are at risk, many are out of work, the former chairman stands accused of taking vast sums out of the business and a British institution has disappeared from the High Street.  It is a sorry story and very distressing for those involved, but it also raises a question: whose organisation is it? Continue reading

Problems and potential in the system

Models of organisation 3

We all see organisations through different lenses. One commentator says that organisations are all about the people (‘our greatest asset’) a second will attribute success to efficient processes (‘a well-oiled machine’) others seek gifted and heroic leaders (overpaid but ‘worth it’).

Meanwhile, sustained organisational success remains elusive:  experience suggests that very few of today’s FTSE 100 companies will be in existence, never mind successful, in 30 years’ time.

In recent blogs I’ve been looking at how the models in our heads determine the way we manage our organisations and how we address their problems.  I’m not arguing that any particular model is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  But (to paraphrase Stafford Beer) some may be more useful than others and being aware of the model we use and opening ourselves up to other possibilities might give us an advantage in the tough world of organisational survival. In this blog I will explore a model (of organisations as systems) that offers richer possibilities for problem-solving and has the additional advantage of allowing the organisation to shift the focus from problem solving to the realisation of potential. Continue reading

Assumptions at work

Models of organisation 2

In my previous blog I suggested that we are guided more than we may realise by the mental model we have about how our organisation works.  We deal with reality by conceptualising it, by creating a framework for interpreting and managing it: we do this in our organisations as we do with life in general.  I invited you to consider what your model might be and whether it is hindering or helping you.

The problem that immediately arises is that our models are usually held largely unconsciously and reveal themselves as the assumptions we implicitly make about how things should be done.  These assumptions may become more apparent (and thus, open to challenge) if we see how they manifest themselves in practice.  So I thought I would offer some sample solutions to the two common organisational problems I mentioned in the last blog but did not discuss further.  Perhaps some will ring bells with you. Continue reading

Models of organisation

How do the assumptions we make limit or help us?

Organisations differ in many ways, but most organisations, in most sectors, have similar problems.  Some common examples follow:

Managers spend a large amount of time doing work that those who report to them should be doing – and no-one has any time to think and plan

Parts of the organisation operate in ‘silos’ and act in a way that actively creates problems for, even sabotages, other parts of the organisation

Despite a lot of effort, team-building sessions and perfectly amicable relationships senior teams find it extremely difficult to work constructively and productively together

Each of these problems could be addressed by taking particular actions to fix them.  But they may also raise a more fundamental question, that of how we think about the organisation. Continue reading

My ideal client

Today I accidentally rang my best client at 2.30 in the morning local time.  Oops. The response?  She laughed groggily, I laughed and apologised, said I’d go, but she insisted on spending 20 minutes talking about the issues I’d rung her to discuss.  I do not suggest that I have any expectation that my clients should welcome such calls, but the incident is, nonetheless, revealing.  It made me think about the relationships I aim to build with my clients and the qualities I look for in them. Continue reading

Church: organisation or Body of Christ

In the Church Times last week Martyn Percy criticised the Church’s use of ‘secular models of organisation” under the headline ‘It’s not an organisation, it’s the Body of Christ’. (See: for the original article – you may need to be a subscriber to read it in full)  Here is my response, which may or may not also appear in the letters column of the Church Times!

The first thing is to say that if the use of organisational thinking indeed results in the intrusion of a rootless commercialism, over-simplification of complex ideas, an instrumental culture of objectives and results or a tendency to bureaucracy then I don’t want it either. I share the concern that there is already too much bureaucracy: this, to me, is an example of how the Church is adept at borrowing the less appropriate and attractive features of the secular world! The Church can feel over-administered and under-powered as a result. This can be remedied partly by a renewal in spiritual practice and in theology – but also by a richer understanding of the learning that is around about organisations. Continue reading