How to strip time and effort out of your strategy process
In my early days as a consultant, my understanding of strategy was probably the same as most people’s.
You start with analysis, internal and external: Boston, Porters, PESTL, SWOT; you name it, we did it. You have a series of off-site meetings over three or four months, with the inevitable circular conversations around old ideas and new concerns. Eventually some initiatives emerge and a big financial goal is tabled, with an exhortation to sales and marketing to find ways to “fill the gap”. They respond with a long list of pet projects and quick wins that keeps everyone busy for the next 12 months, but never really turns the dial.
It sounds like a terrible way to develop a strategy, because it is. So, nine years, and dozens of strategies later, here are five things I’ve learned:
First, it doesn’t need to take six months – it shouldn’t even take six weeks. Two or three workshops over four or five weeks can generate a great strategy for most businesses.
Second, you need far less information than you think, and most of what you need, you’ve probably already got. If haven’t got it, you’ll find that once you get it you’ll want it every month, so next time around you’ll be even faster.
Third, before you do anything, you need to draw out the big challenges you face, the deep knowledge you have in the organisation, the big decisions you need to make, and the big opportunities that might be out there. Most of these will have been swimming around in peoples’ heads for a while but they need stretching, challenging, defining and articulating in a way that everyone understands.
Fourth, you need to have short, focused, well facilitated conversations, that stimultate creativity, generate options, and tackle full-on the key decisions. If you can’t reach a decision, agree the minimum information you need to make it at the next session.
And finally, you need someone really good to stay on top of the fact-finding, processing and planning that goes on between the workshops – the success of each workshop is entirely dependent on the quality of what goes into it.
No modern business can afford to spend six months developing a strategy. Six months from now the competitive landscape will be different; your customers, and their needs and expectations, will certainly have changed, and by the time you’ve got through the process, half of your assumptions will be out of date.
The world your customers live in is changing faster every day, and the way you make decisions, especially around your strategy, needs to be at least as fast as that change. If not, you’ll end up with a very expensive strategy to help you win at a game that no longer exists.