A different way to create strategy.

New York TalkFive years ago, when I was freshly unemployed, a very kind ex-colleague invited me to give a guest-lecture to his business strategy students: a “real life strategy perspective” was the billing.

As I flicked through the course notes in preparation, I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of my depth – here was a lovely, linear process: decide on your vision, mission and values; set your big hairy goals; analyse internally and externally; then make the strategic choices about how you will win. And while the theory was very familiar, my experience was rather different... Far more, well, messy, I suppose.

And so I gave a really awful, rambling lecture about “being flexible”, peppered with “interesting” anecdotes, whilst at the same time, feeling like a bit of a fraud – clearly I’d been doing it all wrong! Five years, and a couple of dozen strategy projects later, I think I’ve finally nailed down the issue. Strategy is not a linear process. That might sound esoteric, but it’s incredibly important.

The first thing I do in a strategy project is listen, really listen, to as many people as I can, to try and find out what the big issues are, what the big questions are, and what the big decisions are that the organisation needs to face into. After that, we have conversations around those big topics, and what usually happens is that we find some deeper, really fundamental questions that we need to answer, way, way before we can go anywhere near defining a vision, or planning out the future.

The conversations often demand more research and analysis, they regularly throw up radical, sometimes crazy ideas, and they invariably generate new options about what the organisation could be. It’s huge, potentially game-changing stuff. Stuff that needs to be explored. That’s what you get from a real strategy conversation, from really talking. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s missing from the business school model.

Bottom Line: I saw Elbow in concert last month and one of their songs keeps going round and round in my head. It’s called New York Morning. “Oh my god New York can talk, and somewhere in that talk are all the answers. Everybody owns the great ideas, and it feels like there’s a big one round the corner”. Every organisation can be like that. You just need to give it the space.