Who has the time or inclination for building strategy these days? As any friends in government, the military, stock markets or weather forecasting will tell us, we live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Everything is changing, faster than ever. Demands of leadership time and attention are unrelenting, often coming at us from dawn to well after dusk, seven days a week.
There are few sources of foresight we can rely on, as technical expertise is repeatedly overwhelmed by technological change, and traditional strategic analysis is of only fleeting value. In this frenetic environment, any strategic guidance is liable to be invalidated or forgotten by our teams in a heartbeat, or quickly copied by our competitors.
Why divert scarce leadership time and attention to strategic navigation, when we barely have time to run the ship?
Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about the best way to build adaptive strategy – including business, digital, technology and customer strategy – for the agile enterprise.
Nous has supported organisations to use an agile approach to meet their biggest challenges, including agile sprints to position a transport company to win major contracts and .
Informed by this real-world experience, and Nous’ many decades of practice in the fields of strategy, design and transformation, I can offer this set of guiding principles to make strategy stick in a messy world.
1. Avoid premature prescription
Build your strategy through an agile, time-boxed, iterative learning journey that allows you to focus on what the business and its customers really care about, rather than attempting to justify an arbitrary direction from the top. Don't push too hard for a perfect 'final' document – expect that the strategy will be frequently refined and extended.
Experimentation and learning through doing – strategic (ad)venturing – should be valued more highly than exhaustive strategic analysis alone. It also concurrently develops the organisational capability and confidence to successfully execute the change at stake.
2. Embed strategy across your operations
Strategy often resides in the executive suite, reserved for use once a year with the board, analysts and investors. Why go to all the trouble of building a coherent strategy, then keep it under wraps, privy only to a chosen few senior executives?
Strategy is not just an answer or artefact. Good strategy is a decision-making and communication system built on a combination of quality data and transparent logic, supported by shared context. This kind of strategy delivers ‘meaning-making’ for the organisation – so that your people care deeply about the outcomes being sought, clearly understand the implications of the strategy for themselves and their customers, and effectively respond.
3. Create co-owners not consumers
Build your strategy in partnership with the community who will need to enact it, and those to be impacted by it. Do this by stress testing your hypotheses with this community so they become co-authors and co-owners of your strategy, rather than mere consumers – or not – of it. The core of this conversation should be about how the organisation creates value for customers, shareholders and staff, and how any proposed strategic initiatives will impact those drivers of value. Co-creating strategy this way enables your teams to be dedicated co-owners of the success measures and desired outcomes, able to fight for them in the face of challenges and to course-correct along the way.
Strategy crafted by leaders behind closed doors, or by cadres of external consultants on their own, can result in great slideware but delivers precious little ground-level change.
4. Design content and context
Build a holistic strategic design, looking at each dimension of the transformation you will be navigating, including the customer, operational, financial and technology domains, as well as the leadership, organisational and cultural aspects that are often not given sufficient consideration.
Often we spend way too much time on the content of the strategy and the things we want to invest in, rather than the internal and external context, capability and confidence we must create to support adoption of our strategic moves.
5. Tell a damn good story
Stories can take us to places we have never been and will never forget.
Build the strategy as a compelling, credible story that will inspire and motivate decisive, coordinated action for the benefit of customers, staff and shareholders, rather than a dense body of detailed analysis and strategic platitudes only fit for endless debate among senior executives.
Your strategy must be anchored by purpose and meaning, using verbal and visual language (words, pictures/diagrams and numbers) each audience will understand, to generate an exciting, actionable picture of where you are headed and what you need to do to get there. Otherwise it’s going nowhere, fast.
6. Many (different) minds make great work
Build the strategy with a rich blend of humanity, creativity, domain expertise and analysis, allowing diverse brains and skills to open up the possibility of fundamental strategic breakthroughs. Avoid the temptation to follow a so-called 'proven', predictable path to incremental improvement at best.
Managing a truly multi-disciplinary team is a tough gig. You must create a ‘crucible’ in which gifted, strong-willed, different people can listen for and exploit their differences for value, not dissent.
7. Get off the beaten track
Inform your strategy with non-traditional, out-of-industry insights, opportunities and experiences that may be more relevant to your customers’ (and their customers’) future worlds. This is better than simply ingesting so-called industry best practices that ensure you end up looking the same as everyone else in your game.
Crashing together different perspectives, in and out of your industry, up and down your organisation, will unlock value at unexpected intersections of technical know-how, customer intimacy and fresh thinking.
Engineer the results you want
I think of our strategy approach as 'results engineering', not simply giving strategic advice. Working in carefully blended teams, we help create clarity, confidence and capability while delivering a strategic assignment.
We work in close partnership with our clients in real life, in real time, to co-create real results.
When we help a client develop a strategy, we have an obligation to help them achieve it. Not an easy or simple approach, but the more we work this way, the more results we enable clients to achieve. In the right relationship, with the right team, it's an approach that really works.
This article was written by Steve Lennon during his time as a Principal at Nous Group. Prepared with input from Jared Norris during his time as a Director at Nous Group.