As with a lot of corporate vocabulary, strategy is a word which is bandied about. Yet so often it is misunderstood – and poorly executed.
Like all effective tools, the concept of strategy is fundamentally very simple. I like Max McKeown’s definition of strategy when he argues that “strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means”.
At its most basic, a strategy is an action plan.
However the question of what an action plan means, and whether one is even worthwhile in this day and age – particularly given the volatility, complexity and pace of change; is a pertinent subject in leadership circles.
The business world has become a more turbulent place, where anyone with a new idea can put it into action before you can say “startup” – and launch widespread movements with a single Tweet.
This volatile environment has left organisational leaders with a very real problem, because the trusted, traditional approach to strategic planning is based on assumptions which no longer apply.
Despite this, I am still a strong believer in the power of strategic planning.
Implemented well, it can be galvanising for an organisation. It provides a framework for action, giving confidence to the Board and employees that the organisation and leaders have a plan for success.
As Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is essential.”
So, I spoke to three leaders who are renowned for strategic agility.
Here are their top tips to help with developing successful strategies:
1. Creativity and full participation. Build a company culture that encourages alternative thinking and opinions. And when it comes to strategic planning sessions, consider using an external facilitator, as they will ensure all involved in the planning participate.
Often in strategy planning sessions some participants dominate the conversation, whilst others (despite their good ideas) stay quiet. Skilled facilitation is an essential ingredient in an effective strategic planning session. So is divergent thinking.
2. Begin with the end in mind. Start in the future when designing your strategy – not in the now. This will help people to focus on where you need to be and what success looks like, rather than what the issues are right now.
As the legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) said, “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”
3. Be flexible. Make sure everyone knows amendments and changes are inevitable from the outset. This is as much about expectations management as it is about allaying any future concerns when inevitable strategy adjustments happen.
Strategic drift can occur when a company responds too slowly to changes in the external environment. People need to know that changing course does not mean the strategy is wrong (although in some cases it may be). It simply means adaptability is necessary to end up where we want to be.
4. Mitigate risks. A good leader will consider multiple perspectives but at the end of the day, also be decisive. If the buck stops with you and you decide to take a particular road, be clear about why you have decided upon a particular course of action. At the same time, be prepared to be wrong and build in a what if process so all potential risks (and risk mitigation strategies) are clear from the get go.