Strategy comes from a military tradition and was based on the knowledge that to successfully pursue your objectives in highly uncertain and constantly changing environments, you need future-focused thinking that’s fluid and activities that constantly adapt as conditions and events unfold. It’s an ongoing process of ‘execute and learn’ where purposeful thought informs action that looks for threats, advantage and opportunity in the shifting landscape.
Yet, despite the increasingly dynamic environment, business strategy has become a very static, analytical ‘plan and measure’ discipline where having something to show for your strategic efforts – plans, blueprints, pillars and ‘yes’ even roadmaps – is valued over the work of adapting to an uncertain future.
As a result, business-speak has made ‘strategy’ a noun – something you have – when it needs to be a verb – something you do – if it is to make a meaningful difference to the future of your organisation.
Strategy should be an ongoing act of creation
In today’s world, if strategy is to deliver meaningful business value, then it needs to return to its military roots. It needs to be constantly building the best possible organisation to take on what the future holds.
That requires what I call ‘strategy-making’.
Strategy-making is not strategic planning, although planning is certainly involved. It’s not high-level strategic thinking because thought alone doesn’t drive business outcomes. It’s not even just strategic execution because plenty of strategic activity fails to produce strategic value.
Strategy-making, as I define it, is the work of:
Consistently and persistently evolving your business toward the future that you aspire to.
This definition has 3 subtle but important aspects to it.
Business strategy is a future-focused activity
This is an important point because so many strategies are a mandate for continuing to do what you’ve always done…but if you’re doing what you’ve always done, you’re not adapting…if you don’t adapt you’re not evolving.
You may have read my analogy of strategy-making as a journey. Well, because the future is always in front of you, it’s a journey that never ends. It’s a journey with direction but no destination. The end of a strategic planning period doesn’t mark the end of the strategy, it merely marks a point to re-assess the course of that journey. If appropriate, it’s a chance to adjust the direction based on what you now know about the regulatory or political environment, the economy, your customers’ needs and wants and, if you’re doing it well, the knowledge that you’ve gained from the journey thus far.
A strategy-making conversation is a leadership conversation
It’s not a planning conversation.
In today’s highly uncertain and dynamic business environment, you can’t plan your way to your organisation’s best possible future – you have to lead it there. It is leadership that brings the fluidity of thought and purposeful action required to adapt in a volatile and constantly changing world.
The good news is that if you lead it in the right way you can use strategy to leverage that leadership across the entire organisation. You can expand the ‘circle of leadership’ and bring your people’s skills and experience, principles and values, determination and commitment to bear on making your business a market leader. Thus, placing you on the leading edge of where the market is headed.
To bring out those leadership qualities in your teams and your strategic endeavours, your strategy-making needs to have purpose. Something that your people can attach meaning to and your clients can see value in.
Strategy requires a vehicle for action
Most importantly, strategy-making is not something you HAVE, it’s something you DO! That means you must imbue it with action and activity – you have to give it forward momentum so that it will effectively compete with the urgent and important demands of the operational world. I often describe this as bringing the NEXT into the NOW…the future into the present so that you give it immediacy and attach priority.
I believe projects are the best ‘vehicle’ for undertaking the strategic journey – because they’re a vehicle for DOING. So, when I talk about projectifying your strategy-making, I’m really talking about how to effectively use projects to turn strategic intent – the future that you aspire to – into operational reality within your organisation. That’s the endgame.
It is not enough to simply DO projects – even if you do them well – because you don’t do projects just for the sake of doing them. You see, virtually all projects are investments. You do them because you’re seeking a return. Whether you’re a non-profit looking for a social return, a government seeking a political return or an executive that wants to see a financial return, projects exist to generate greater business value than the time, energy and capital required to undertake them.
That makes strategic projects an investment in the future of your business. An investment that needs to be made wisely so that you devote the limited time, energy and resources that you have for strategy-making to the endeavours that best serve your future and the business outcomes that future will enable.
The power of strategic projects
The value of projectifying your strategy-making goes beyond creating a structure for implementing your strategy. It allows you to develop and refine your strategic approach so that it’s more effectively serving your aspirations for the future. It’s also a means of better leveraging the knowledge, capabilities and creativity of the broadest cross-section of your organisation.
It does this in three important ways.
They connect daily activity with strategic purpose
Two of the most significant challenges to effectively executing strategy are:
- Competing with the urgent and important work of the operational world, and
- Translating the abstract and sometimes ethereal concepts of strategic intent into the work that people do on a daily basis.
Strategic projects are a powerful way to bring the future–focus work of strategy into the present. When they’re viewed as investments, strategic projects can be identified, selected and developed based on their strategic value – how important they are to the future of the business.
This allows you to connect a specific project to the strategic purpose it serves. It allows you to decide what projects you undertake based on its strategic priority – how important the investment is today. And it gives the team who undertake it something tangible to do – not just an outcome that needs to be delivered in the future.
For your organisation, more broadly, it allows you to give distinction and priority to your future-focused work so that it stands out from the myriad of competing priorities that consume the majority of our work day.
They are a means of engaging your people in the strategic journey
Research has consistently shown that organisations with a fully-engaged workforce out-grow, out-perform and outlast other businesses. Studies by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall found that engagement increases more than 5-fold (8- to 45-percent in the USA) when people are made part of a team which builds trust with their leadership.
Creating strategic project teams allows you to intentionally engage your people by giving them the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the future of the organisation and the workplace that enables that future. This builds trust by entrusting them – by giving them control over a leg of the strategic journey.
It also allows you to leverage your leadership by engaging the leadership qualities of the people that are on the front lines of creating business value.
They inform your strategic aspirations
When dealing with an uncertain future, clarity comes on the other side of action. Strategic projects are the activities that provide clarity. Amy Edmondson and Paul Verdin developed a perspective that frames an organisation’s strategic aspirations as a hypothesis rather than a plan. When viewed through this lens strategic projects can be used as experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
Either way the outcomes, when combined with operational experience and changing market conditions, can be used to refine your strategic aspirations. They can inform where the greatest strategic value lies and what represents that strategic value. This is true whether you’re testing emerging strategic ideas or advancing a deliberate strategic direction.
As Edmondson and Verdin put it, this exploration and experimentation allows you to move from the traditional “strategy as planning” methodology to a “strategy as learning” approach.
Making strategy means taking action
Exploring and making bold decisions about the future aspirations for your business gives your strategic journey direction. It provides your strategic activities with purpose. And it begins to define NEXT and bring that toward the present in an intentional way.
But translating those aspirations into doing is what separates today’s exceptional businesses from those that are trying to minimise the impact of market forces. The leaders that actively invest in the future of their organisations by translating strategic intent into consistent, persistent project activity will create the businesses that thrive in any market. They are the ones that will engage and leverage the full depth and breadth of their people’s knowledge, experience and capabilities. They will use execution and exploration to identify and seize business opportunities. They will create the disruptive market forces that their competitors are reacting to and new customers are seeking out.
Does your strategy-making have a purpose? What does this purpose mean to your people and what value does it add to your clients?
Is your business future-focussed or continuing to do what it has always done?
Are you utilising the diversity of the people in your organisation? Could you expand your business’s circle of leadership to access your people’s knowledge and expertise?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.