Learnings from strategy development and deployment

12th March 2014

When I look at my schedule of client work, most of it falls into the category of strategy development and deployment, regardless of the type of organisation. For example, I am working with the board of a small charitable organisation who have reached a cross roads because of funding, this means they need to take a strategic look at their organisation and decide how they want to move forward; I am also working with a large global Aerospace client, who is needing to respond to market changes, which requires a change in direction, developed at board level and then executed through a workforce of thousands, worldwide. All organisations, big and small, need clarity of long term direction and strategy, to inform their short term planning and day to day action.

What’s interesting is the way this happens – which varies hugely from organisation to organisation. The variables, as I am currently seeing them, seem to be:

  • DATA – what data does the leadership pay attention to when determining strategy?
  • PROCESS – what process does the organisation go through in the development and deployment of strategy?
  • PEOPLE – who is involved at what stages and how are they collaborated with?

In my view, the winning combination is insightful data, with robust process and the right people involved at different stages – that’s easy for me to write, but it seems there are common pitfalls in working this way.

DATA – people are talking about BIG DATA in every meeting I facilitate at the moment. It seems that the world is awash with data. However, the challenge is in paying attention to the right data, and then using this to develop insights, that inform strategy decisions. It seems to me that often leadership teams find themselves with soooo much data, but none of it is helpful or, on the other end of the spectrum, a complete absence of data. Both of these situations result in the same problem – important business decisions being founded on instinct, not insights. Good strategy needs both.

PROCESS – Without process, a group will fall into a patterns of thinking, which often do not serve them well. The pattern is often lead from the top of the organisation and can range from very ,blue sky thinking’, which is all very inspiring, but has no substance, through to very practical strategy, usually developed from extrapolating from today, this has plenty of substance but no creative stretch.

PEOPLE – the question arises, in strategy work, about who is involved at what stage. At one end of the spectrum a leader can lock herself away and develop a strategy which is then communicated. This approach probably doesn’t lead to the most robust strategy and also leaves a potential issue around the senior leadership understanding and buying into the strategy. The other end of the spectrum is that everyone is involved in the co-creation of the strategy. The great thing about this is the buy in it gives but it is too slow and impractical for most large organisations.

So, generally the most successful combination is that the leader and her direct reports co-create the strategy, incorporating and Givens from the wider organisation, and this team then tests the vision, with key stakeholders from the wider organisation, before communicating the vision throughout the whole organisation.

If DATA, PROCESS and PEOPLE are the raw ingredients for a robust strategy, then the final result needs to be clear and consistent, which is where a VISUAL STRATEGY can really help. Words have so many meanings and lots of words in a strategy document are open to much misinterpretation, particularly in a global organisation. As the saying goes, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and a visual strategy will communicate far more easily and effectively than words alone. A rich picture graphic of an organisations strategy is not only far more compelling than a word or data document, but it is also much easier for people to make meaning from, and thereby understand the implications for their work – which is ultimately what drives vision / strategy into action.

Nelson Mandela once said:
“Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision just passes the time, and vision with action can change the world.”

There are hundreds of different theoretical and practical approaches to the development and deployment of strategy. In my view, many of them lead no further than a presentation or document sat in the leaders file. Ultimately, the only thing that drives change is ACTION, one small step at a time, so leaders need to think about their strategy deployment in terms of how they communicate CLEAR and CONSISTENT messages, to help their workforce make MEANING of the organisational strategy. The best way to do this is through VISUAL messages, using words and pictures, combined with CONVERSATION, to allow people to synthesise what they hear and make meaning. This is NOT about doing lots of presentations to people, that is just passing time.