How to Make Strategy Stick
For my Pinchot University class on Sustainability and Strategy, my students nominated the topic of making strategy stick as their discussion topic. Please join them in offering questions, comments and contributions to this list of approaches for how to make strategy stick.
Have a good strategy.
While some consultants and advisors start by suggesting clients have a good story about their strategy, I find that no amount of wordsmithery will transform a bad strategy into a good one. So start with the basics. Develop strategies that are clear, that focus on action in overcoming a challenge, that can be measured, and that can be translated so individuals can see how their work contributes to the execution of strategy and its accompanying goals. Assumptions are deadly. The last thing you want is a great story about a bad strategy that then requires considerable effort to dislodge if the company lives long enough to come up with a good strategy.
Maing strategy stick: transform strategies into plans.
Whether created top-down or co-created through a networked organization, a plan that breaks down strategy into achievable activities proves essential to strategies that stick. Part of that plan should be to recast existing work so that it can be more clearly viewed in light of the strategy. Even more telling is work that stops because it is no longer relevant to the strategy. The worst thing for strategy is confusion.
Consider how confusing U.S. military strategy appears to people in the U.S. armed forces, to foreign allies or to America’s enemies when a branch of the armed forces decides a weapons system is no longer strategically relevant, but Congress continues to fund the program in order to keep jobs in their districts. If a strategy becomes a tool of politics rather than a tool of execution, then it may end up sticking in the wrong ways and drive negative, rather than positive behavior.
Plans also need to include measurements that demonstrate how well they are being executed, part of which includes gathering data that demonstrates movement toward strategy achievement.
Making strategy stick: align and integrate.
If individuals can’t connect their work to strategy the strategy it becomes irrelevant, and they might also feel the work itself has become irrelevant. If, after examining the work being done on behalf of the organization’s strategy, alignment doesn’t exist, then phase out that work.
If employees perceive their value as being delivered only by customers, or only locally through direct management – meaning they can’t find any way to attach value to their work within the context of the greater organization – then not only should the work be examined in light of the strategy, but the strategy should be examined to see if there are strategies in place that remain relevant but haven’t been captured adequately during internal assessments. That kind of closed-loop examination can be a powerful tool. When people see that their work has influenced strategy, they are going to remember the relationship and tell their story to peers and new hires much more so than if they are taught the strategy as a disconnected story that corporate just expects them to embrace.
Don’t abandon strategy too early.
Long haul strategies that transform industries and nations take time to unfold, and patience to execute. They are all too rare in a world where leaders insist on too narrowly adopting adaptation as a means to their ends, ends that are often more about a strategy of survival than transformation and leadership. Just because the strategy isn’t meeting the dates set by the plan doesn’t mean the strategy is bad. This just means that the plan, like all plans, speculated on a future over which there was little visibility, many uncertainties, and (if the strategy is entirely new) no experience. Learn, adjust and work through the difficult moments. It is OK to abandon strategy, just as it is OK to change a company’s values or mission. Just remember, all of those changes should reflect the needs of a drastically changed situation, either immediate or perceived in the future, not just some bumps along the road. Navigating through or over obstacles provides deep and meaningful stories for those who experience the test and an emotional connection to the strategy that can be taught.
Use strategy as a decision-making tool.
Any part of the organization that makes a decision that appears to be “strategic” should bounce that idea through the strategy. If the decision aligns with and furthers the strategy, then it should be easy to find in the strategic plan. In addition, the plan should reflect that the strategic action was executed, and links should be available to see how that decision is playing out (good or bad – strategy isn’t always right, so organizations need to think of any action as a learning opportunity). This can also be thought of as “acting strategically” from an organizational standpoint – purposeful and meaningful within the strategic framework.
Keep the strategy updated.
If strategic decisions are made or directions abandoned, and the documented strategy remains static, the momentum for stickiness is lost. At this point, strategy devolves into something that people might hear about rather than something central to the organization’s way of operating.
When change occurs and change includes progress, reflect that change in the strategy. If something fundamental shifts, like the abandonment of a strategy, that should not just be acted upon, but reflected in the strategic planning documentation, update the documentation to reflect the change. Strategy is realtime. When it changes, tell people, update references, and work to quickly ensure that activities in the organization designed to support the abandoned strategy are quickly wrapped up or transformed to support the new strategy.
Employ Just-In-Time Learning.
One often-cited technique for making strategy stick is education. Education is a tool, but generic education around an organization’s strategy is generally delivered just-in-case rather than just-in-time. Strategic awareness delivered this way might not be top of mind when needed. If organizations encourage the use of strategy as a decision-making tool in a setting where people don’t have a firm grasp on the content, there should be on-line tools, communities and other assets available to provide concise context and relevance to the decision at hand. These tools will likely deliver better strategic decisions and more meaningful awareness of the strategy, than continued background noise that people can’t or won’t hear because it isn’t immediately relevant.
Remember strategy isn’t always about change.
Finally, remember that strategy isn’t always about change. Sometimes strategic dialog and reflection result in an affirmation of the current course of action. All of the literature about communicating strategy as change means little in this situation. Re-examining communications, alignment and non-aligned work remain necessary tasks, but a working strategy should be nourished. It should not be disrupted by unnecessary actions that make people start doubting direction for no real purpose other than a leader or manager implementing ideas they read in a book or heard while attending a seminar on how to communicate strategy better. If your strategy is already working, let it work. Don’t overwork it.
Making strategy stick: A note to start-ups
Start-ups are in the unique position of not having a strategy until they begin work. Strategy articulated in a pitch decks remains abstract and theoretical until it starts to transform into action, at which point it may quickly require adjustments, regardless of the experience of the management team. Even the most experienced management team hasn’t done the work at hand before, because the new business is a new context. Conviction about vision, humbleness about uncertainty, and a willingness to learn, should not be perceived as mutually exclusive.
Enter the arrogance of the funders, who may insist that bad strategy remains in place based on the vision they invested in. That is not stickiness. That is foolishness.
The stickiness of strategy in a start-up relies on the ability of the founders to constantly adjust until they find something that works. It is not until then that they can step back to capture that “formula” and ensure that it resonates with their early employees (and if not, consider that the hiring criteria for the theory may not match the required hiring criteria for the real business that has evolved) and that it can be effectively used for making decisions.
All of the coaching to communicate strategy, and to think about strategy as change doesn’t apply to the start-up because in a good start-up, the business and the strategy are one. There has been no time to drift into experiments, to acquire other firms for dubious strategic reasons or to have powerfully charismatic or politically motivated leaders either inspire change or achieve it through threats. For the start-up, all the difficulties of strategy lie in their future. Perhaps for the only time in the history of any business, the start-up is a strategic singularity.
I repeat: for the start-up, the strategy and the business are one.
(Thank you to Lauren Lark for the great edits! – 20 points to Gryffindor)
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I totally agree with ” Align and integrate” as a very important factor of making a strategy stick. If you ask any employee about their company’s strategy and they have to look for a document that tells them, then the strategy isn’t embedded in their minds and, as a result, it does not influence day-to-day decisions. I think a great part of strategy development should be dedicated to how this strategy is communicated and understood.
Also, loved the concept “the start-up is a strategic singularity”. Startups may have a north star, but I still believe that startups grow as their strategy grows and develops.
“While some consultants and advisors start by suggesting clients have a good story about their strategy, I find that no amount of wordsmithery will transform a bad strategy into a good one.” It’s clear that creating an effective strategic story, one with real impact, involves much more than simply crafting and then telling a compelling story. Dan, can you think of an example of an organization with a bad strategy but a “good” story? It would be interesting to read about one.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
I’ll have to dig a little more for examples, but what first came to mind was Lehman Brothers. On paper, they looked like they knew what they were doing, but clearly did not. True of many of the financial firms crushed in the Great Recession, including WAMU. In a time of plenty, going after risky investments looks like a good payout, especially if the collateral is West Coast real estate. How can you loose? But as risk was realized, and I mean realized, they didn’t have a strategy for the new world. They were unable to move their investments fast enough to cover the losses. Much of this was not just facilitated, but encouraged, by lax lending laws, especially those related to consumer debt. In scenario planning, the laws, the subprime mortgages and other factors that contributed to the start of the Great Recession were far outside the vision of many follow-on organizations caught in the financial collapse. Because they didn’t recognize that external influences on their strategy, they all had bad strategies, including GM, Chrysler, AIG, etc. If you go back and look back at GM strategy for 2007, the story looks pretty good (you can find it here: http://www.wikinvest.com/stock/General_Motors_(GM)/Strategy). You may then want to read this HBR piece on GM strategy, and how it went wrong (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6229.html).
Would love to hear other thoughts.
Totally agreed that “if individuals can’t connect their work to strategy the strategy it becomes irrelevant, and they might also feel the work itself has become irrelevant.” This alignment can be achieved in developed organizations but implementing the balanced scorecard. If senior managers have mapped out their desired strategy the critical alignment occurs by translating those goals into operational drivers and milestones that can be monitored and controlled. As a Volkswagen executive once put it, “developing the right metrics to translate [our] strategic objectives was as important as defining the objectives themselves.” Steering a big ship requires communication down to the base of each functional organization, such as the factory floor, in order to include feedback, empower, implement and control the effort.
On the flip, we have startups, where the slate is clean. Love that idea that “…the start-up is a strategic singularity.” There are plenty of concepts. Everyday, more thinkers are also becoming doers who take action as learning opportunities. Opportunities not to fail, but to fail-up!
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Remember though that the balanced scorecard must be well implemented, not just in existence. So many management tools get started, but not used well.
And as I said, I like your translation for start-ups of “the business is the strategy” as a “strategic singularity.” Would love to heard what Kurzweil or Hawking think of that.
I appreciate the fluidity in this approach to strategy. For our Strategy and Implementation class, we just got through the transient advantage, which represents strategy as a continuously evolving process [https://hbr.org/2013/06/transient-advantage]. This brings up an interesting contrast to your reminder that “strategy isn’t always about change. In fact, there seems to be a fine balance not only to the dichotomy between change and sustain, but also as it applies to the pace of change. If we turn our strategy on its ear every time it fails us, we will evolve into a state of internal confusion. AND if bad strategy stays bad, our company (perhaps) will cease to exist. From my perspective, there is a system of trial and error that strategy must constantly be run through. Sometimes this will result in business as usual, sometimes it will expose the need for a shift. When the need for a shift presents itself, it seems that a series of small shifts disguised as incentives or planned improvements appears to be idea. How often is this the case, and how often are tiny incremental shifts just too slow?
Daniel W. Rasmus says
I agree, which is why I love scenarios. They aren’t perfect, but they let you stress test strategy against potential futures ahead of others. That way you will have practiced a change that you might not immediately need, but because of the scenarios you can anticipate faster (you will see early signs and pay attention because you have kind of already done that) and react faster, because you have already pre-thought about contingencies.
Evan Bouchier says
There were two things that struck me when reading through this thread. The first was in response to ‘listing things that we won’t do’ within strategy, and also the example of the government weapons program and “strategy sticking in the wrong ways to drive negative behavior.” There is a bridge re-construction project taking place around the corner from my house, so I am constantly witnessing their pace of (in)action at work when I walk by with my dog or head to the bus stop for class. Without fail, every time I walk by there will be 6 people standing around while 1 person is executing some simple task. I witnessed one bobcat operator who was moving a pile of dirt back and forth between two locations. It has dawned on me that this is not an accidental scenario, but in fact the result of an extremely poor strategy. Perhaps the construction company needs to expend their entire budget to ensure they are given a full allocation the next year? Labor unions have probably strategized to ensure that every worker has distinct and distinguished tasks, and not only a lack of incentive but probably a DIS-incentive to contribute to the task of other workers. There is no doubt that this is a strategy that has ‘stuck’ to drive negative behavior. It also provides some excellent strategic frameworks to avoid, and perhaps in so doing could help drive a more agile contractor to a more effective strategy.
The other thing that struck me was the concept of a startup strategic singularity. I am currently working on a startup media platform. I had not identified this singularity, but now I see that it defines our position. Our team is trying to be strategic in creating a minimum viable product to illustrate our vision, and to take small steps now that play into the longer-term framework. Every step that we take to develop the business, the product, and the network are all pieces our emerging strategy. While we do have a compass and a vague map, we are also learning from every one of the above developments and thereby constantly evolving our strategy. I think this concept will be helpful in staying agile as we try to grow.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Ah, but the negative behavior is only negative to those who want a bridge built in what they perceive as “in good time.” The strategy is working for the other parties. Chances are they will never use the bridge and aren’t stakeholders of any kind once it is built, except to say it is complete and of sufficient quality so they can get the next contract, and be hired for that contract (labor). So there is nothing wrong with their strategy within the system in which they operate. In fact, they have probably optimized for this environment.
So you see this and are concerned. What is your strategy? Vote out local representation? Go to city council meetings and complain? Start a petition? Is it annoying enough that you will create a strategy for overcoming what you see as an obstacle to good bridge building in your neighborhood? Or will you decide that you can’t prioritize for the effort that you see ahead for changing the behavior. You don’t have enough time to gain enough control to create change? Same questions that come up in company strategy. If you have an ideal, Northstar view, do you have enough resources to actually achieve it, and if not, is it really a good Northstar because it might create more frustration in knowing (and having your staff know) that it just isn’t achievable, or do you lower your expectations a bit? A lot of tough questions.
Evan Bouchier says
I would argue the behavior is negative to our whole society, in a way that reaches far beyond driving over that particular bridge (or listening to the heavy equipment all summer.) The bridge builders, in optimizing for their personal interests, are reinforcing the perpetuation of outdated infrastructure systems driving a huge part of our frightening carbon trajectories. If it takes all summer and $20 million dollars to build a 2 lane bridge over a small creek, it’s impossible to implement a wholesale transition to the type of transportation infrastructure that might be part of a sustainable future (such as integrated light-rail, Curitiba-style bus system, prioritized smart-cars, etc.) So yes, the bridge builders may have optimized for their wasteful strategy. But for the local and national governments paying the bills, and for society as a whole, the strategy is NOT working.
My personal strategy? My personal strategy is to align my own efforts with the trajectory that enables me to optimize my impact, while simultaneously living a wholesome and fulfilled life. There are many, many ways in which our society operates according to outdated models and failed strategy. However, I have only a certain amount of energy to put forth into the world, plus a specific set of skills and influence to most effectively utilize this energy. At this point in time, petitioning my local government and going to town hall meetings would be a tragically ineffective means of utilizing my skill sets.
Instead for example, over the last year I have been consulting for a project with the Rocky Mountain Institute that works on systemic efficiency gains, at one of the most powerful and critical societal levers of our times: Chinese energy and transportation infrastructure. The project involves a partnership with the Chinese central government and Lawrence Berkeley Labs, to design a roadmap for Chinese infrastructure development through 2050. This project optimizes for several of my strengths: many years of engineering and development in China and Asia (with accompanying language and cultural knowledge), skills and experience with Lean manufacturing and Lean systems, and more recent education and work in the realms of sustainable energy systems and finance, plus it sparks my passion for traveling and learning.
Moving forward, my strategy will be to continue to leverage my unique skills and experience to access new professional challenges, and very importantly to target my efforts to the most appealing organizations and challenges in order to inspire and thereby motivate my ongoing action. I do aspire to work on more specific transportation system design. And I think that construction management has vast efficiency potential that could be gleaned through studying Lean manufacturing systems. So who knows, maybe I’ll work on that bridge someday after all.
I can really relate to your comment regarding the ‘arrogance of funders’ as a “Strategy Fallacy” of sorts. As a member of an early-stage company that is still reliant on our VCs to fund our operations, I see this as a major strategic land mine for us as an organization. Our board is partially composed of our VCs, and they struggle to understand the nuance of our specific business. They fly in for a board meeting once a quarter, focus on our business for a couple of days, and then take off back to the valley. They seem to each have their own KPI’s that they are managing to (part of their ‘brand’ as a Fund), regardless of how relevant those metrics may be to our business at our particular stage.
Because they are managing our leadership team, these meetings often lead to a shift in some part of our strategy that doesn’t really seem like it needs to be changed. They always challenge us to ‘grow faster’, even though we’re growing 2-3x year over year and the reality is that we are maxing out our technology and infrastructure’s ability to keep up with the growth.
I realize that it is beneficial to be challenged on our assumptions and our performance, but overheating growth is a real problem that (our) funders seem to have very little regard for. What are your thoughts on having Funders involved in strategy? Even if they DESERVE to be involved, is it really WISE? Do we need a meta-strategy for managing our investor’s ability to impact our strategy? It feels to me like the root of the issue here comes down to alignment of our leadership team – if they were better strategically aligned, we’d likely be better able to resist such Strategy Hiccups.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
First of all, AMEN. Second, when you take money, if the funder wants to be involved in strategy, they will be involved. You give up control, and the more you dilute, the more control you give up. A key skill is negotiation. If you have a CEO who can really stand-up, intellectually and emotionally to the funders then that is probably the best way to let “the strategy” keep moving forward even if the funders have other ideas.
Our company will soon be going through the steps of getting a Series A investment. I was just speaking with our CEO yesterday about how to maintain control while accepting money and the complications that often leads to (dilution of control, board power plays, etc.). His response was that finding the right people to invest – those that trust the founder’s vision and ability to lead – is fundamental. Getting a boatload of cash to ramp up your company is great, and we’re all excited at the prospect as we have something we really want to grow. But I would argue it’s better to stay small and keep looking for the Mr. & Mrs. Right’s out there that “get it”. It may take a lot more time than you’d like, but if it leads to the avoidance of situations like Elliott’s (and the other painful stories you hear about in the business world re: board and leadership), I say just slow down and keep refining what you’ve got. Groom potential investors and *hopefully* in time they’ll come to realize that A) they really want to invest, and B) the company is in great hands.
Or is this just wishful thinking?
Jeremy Dragt says
As many of us may very well be involved with startups, (I know I will) do you have suggestions for maintaining that agility of youth as the startup scales up. You talk about how startups should continue to adjust until they find something that works but how do you prevent what works from calcifying into something that may no longer work in our ever changing world.
I would like to think that Jeff Bezzos didn’t start Amazon with a vision of the reportedly toxic environment that we have recently been reading about. However, has the strategy of innovation ossified so that work life balance is left far behind. At what point do you think that happened at Amazon? How can we avoid repeating the mistake of monomania whether that is innovation, shareholder value, or even sustainability?
I really enjoyed the portion about putting strategy into effect but also using strategy to aid in decision making.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Combinations of scenarios and a strategy for learning. I think every organization should include a strategy that says they will continuously learn about the world, their market and their customers and evolve to meet emerging and newly discovered needs.
Eric Peterson says
These thing from the blog that grabbed my attention:
One of the aspects I’ve witnessed for good strategies is that they are specific enough to distinguish the company from its CLOSEST competition. All too often, I see mission and strategy dialogs that looks exactly the same: “Be the best at XXXX by hiring the best people, developing the best product and managing our resources better than everyone else” The strategy never gets into what the organization will decline to do because it is the wrong direction for the business and the people who work there. One company I knew of literally had tenants of its strategy called “Best in class manufacturing, “Best in class product development” “Best in class sales” “Best in class customer service” “Best in class supply chain”. It was more like a capabilities statement than a strategy. It turned out all they were really good at was buying stuff and letting it sit on the shelves.
The comment about focus on action in overcoming a challenge really resonates with me. Its so much more useful in hand than a talk about the way things should be like “ We should have better attention to detail”, We should meet our deadlines more often”.
The statement about if something “Doesn’t align, then phase out that work” is probably the boldest part of strategic stickiness. It’s not always about cost or contribution margin, sometimes the right thing to do is to walk away from work that would be lucrative, but would leave the team who does it without a connection to the rest of the company.
“When change occurs and change includes progress, reflect that change in the strategy.” What about when change is imminent but hasn’t occurred yet? Can a company find itself critically behind the curve because their intuition was off? Or is failing to see or believe an emerging force of change always a matter of incomplete information and maybe bad luck?
“Just in time learning” This is my biggest gripe about university educations. The learning comes front loaded out of sequence, and there is a cubic risk of wasted knowledge, It can be outdated, it can be forgotten, or it can be irrelevant to the real task at hand when it arrives. I’d love to see us revamp our education system to deliberately align it with peoples career paths and immediate need. And invent ways to credit it appropriately.
“Enter the arrogance of the funders, who may insist … That is not stickiness. That is foolishness.” In my experience, the funders tend to be pretty flexible. They want their money back way more than they need their idea kept pristine. The fund managers, entrusted with other people’s money, especially program and product managers, are the ones who tend to blow resources on dogmas. I’m curious how everyone else experiences that.
“The strategy and the business are one.” I’m still sort of struggling to get my head around this. My brief startup experience has hit me with the difference between the startup and the entrepreneur launching it. My strategy turned out to be wrong. Customers wanted something different than I thought they did. So I pivoted the business. I wanted it to stay a livelihood badly enough that I was fine with that outcome. Totally different strategy, but still the same business. Is that experience in conflict with that statement?
Daniel W. Rasmus says
I think any group or consultant who lets an organization create a generic strategy, mission, values, etc. without an argument, should really be doing another job. That said, in education, it is really hard to get schools to change their statements as they are used in accreditation, and the accreditors employ processes and criteria that don’t encourage change. Momentum and control are powerful allies.
And yes, anything that isn’t specific and offers the ability to measure a change is pretty useless. “Better attention to detail,” “More collaborative,” “more innovative” all fall into that category. If you want to be more innovative create a strategy that funds ideas, provides people with time to work on ideas and evaluate the ideas for others, and create negative incentives for those who don’t participate in idea creation — and don’t hire people who don’t want to, or don’t demonstrate, a propensity for innovation. The strategy must be infused throughout and be actionable — meaning, people should be able to take action in their work that reflects the intentionality of the strategy.
As for the “Business and the strategy are one” – no conflict. If you have continued with the first strategy, it would have gone out of existence at the same time the company did. They would have been one. When you pivoted to a more survival-oriented strategy (yes, assumption, as you don’t say what the pivot was intended to do), the business reflected that in how it makes decisions, including investments and risk mitigation.
The point about using strategy as a decision making tool immediately made me think about the connection between strategy and tactics in chess.
Magnus Carlsen has been (arguably) the best chess player in the world for the last 5 years and is currently the highest rated player of all time. Over the years, the specifics of his strategic thinking has evolved, but the connection between his actions on the board and his overall strategy has only strengthened.
In general, the strategy Carlsen typically employs has been described as “nettlesome”. He is able to accurately evaluate the current game state and ratchet up the pressure on his opponent through carefully coordinated tactical moves. His typical strategy is not one of all out attack, but slowly building until the opponent makes an error. The only way this type of play will be successful is through the coordination of all of his pieces and the optimization of every move to build the pressure on the opponent.
In a high level tournament, if Carlsen were to lose discipline and divert from his pressure building strategy to capture a piece for short term gain, but in doing so it relieves the pressure on his opponent or breaks the coordination between own pieces, it would likely result in loss. It can be the exact same in business.
If a particular unit were to break off from the plans the business had been building towards to chase a short term tactical advantage, but in doing so used valuable time and resources that were needed to achieve the long term business strategy, the result could be a failure of the overall strategic vision.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
We have to be careful with Chess, which I know is a classic trope for strategy. Some of the thinking applies, but chess is a fixed space with well-defined rules. Business is an unfixed space with variable rules, some of which might get discarded mid-game. The lesson you point out on sup-optimal choices is a good one. A big thing that many miss in strategy is listing the things we won’t do, along with the things we whole-hearted will do.
Nickolas Hein says
When I started outlining my response I realized that there are many areas where we need strategy – even as an individual – and the foundation of them all is a solid strategic vision. To me this means the most important part of strategy formation is deciding why you want to start, and what you want to be the result at the end. The best insight I ever got into this was a discussion I once heard between a father and son who ran their funeral home business together. They had planned memorials and burials for many other people over the years together and the interviewer asked them, what their plans for each other. They replied that they hadn’t come to a decision on it but instead had agreed that if they thought about it, discussed it, meditated on it and kept an open mind – that they would know what to do when the time came.
For my personal strategic vision I’ve decided to follow nature’s example of transforming the energy of the Sun in ways that benefit all living things. This forms the foundation of how I choose strategy for finance, career, education, health, relationships, spirituality and succession (inheritance). Since our society doesn’t all share the same vision, there is some adjustment required on my part. For example, you can’t do anything if you’re broke – and right now I’m in the most difficult financial position of my life. (I’m looking for a strategy to change that).
As a startup founder I want a corporate (meaning group of individuals who share responsibility) strategic vision that will be an outgrowth of my own, and will create intended outcomes by engaging the time, attention, resources and cooperation of others who share this vision. The strategy I choose that does this will stick. The difference is, unlike the funeral directors, I can’t just wait around for someone to die. A corporation is responsible for creating better life for its stakeholders, and has to be actively engaged every minute of every day to do so. This means inspiring the members (including myself) in every way from what they eat and wear in the morning to asking themselves at the end of the day whether they did the best job possible and how they will beat it tomorrow.
I’m currently preparing the pitch for Luni’s Entre 2 class, and last nite my project partner and I came to the realization that this (bike) business doesn’t have much chance of attracting anyone based on money, but it still needs to happen. My strategic vision must attract investors as an opportunity to make a difference in the world, while generating an acceptable financial return. I want to start because our current transportation clusterflock is a noisy, messy, suffocating, dehumanizing affair that has left us plenty of room for improvement. I want the result at the end to be that everyone can get where they want to go while preserving the places they travel through.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
I understand and I think the connection with the Sun is more a value used for making decisions than a strategy. I get the bike thing, but we have a huge issue that most infrastructure, some of which is still more designed for horses than automobiles, wasn’t designed for bikes. I would suggest, as the previous comments begins, that you start with a vision, and go into the vision components we discussed in the last class. What are all of the things you need to achieve to reach your vision, and each of those is really an obstacle that requires a strategy. You don’t have A strategy that gets you to a bike filled world, but you can have a strategy that gets you more bike friendly infrastructure, than will help you achieve your vision of a more bikey world. Thoughts?
Eric Peterson says
Looking back, I think the hold back on our project was that we started married to a solution, and then tried to work backwards to build a business around it. Our strategy is “design and build a bike transmission we personally want. Look all over for other people who want to buy it too. Build enough of them so everyone who wants one can buy one.”
I think when you start with meeting your own need instead of someone elses, you set yourself up for a hobby business. Which is just fine. Jesse James made a very successful hobby business. So did Hugh Hefner, Steve Irwin and Jerry Garcia. But those companies and their founder are really inseparable. That limits their impact to their founders willingness to be a workaholic. So you trade some of the financial opportunity and impact for another kind of satisfaction. It just might mean keeping a day job for longer. I really don’t see that as a failure so much as a clear set of priorities.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Yes. There is nothing wrong with that if you are happy doing it and it lets you live the life you want to live. If you want to transform something bigger than you, you have to think about something bigger than you. And you have to be willing to take the rejection and failures along the road. Some hobby businesses do just fine and, like some of the sustainability stories, end up as industry examples, shining lights, of strategy. I’m not sure Hugh Hefner was always strategic. He took something that worked and ran with it as far as he could. I’m not sure he ever had ambitions to do anything bigger than how big the business just became. Investors may have, but I’m not sure that was what motivated Hefner when he ran the company. His legacy, however, will want to build a business that doesn’t rely on him, and that will mean perhaps a different, more differentiated set of strategies, which is what I think we are seeing.
Finally, your personal strategy is just as important as any business strategy. I hear you. Starting a business is tough business and it isn’t for everyone. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty, willing to take risks and either cash positive or will to take on debt during times of income famine. And don’t hang out with too many serial entrepreneurs. Before you jump on a bandwagon ask how well aligned your skills and personality are to the serial entrepreneurs you know (and then ask how many serial entrepreneurs you know — unless you hang out in “investment land” the number is pretty small. The number of actual successes by serial entrepreneurs is even smaller. Also inspiring to see people willing to jump in to a business for an idea and to go make that happen. I love to work with them. But strategy isn’t just for the brave (or the foolish) but also for everyday people and regular businesses — because both exist in worlds of uncertainty and change and staying just enough ahead, and in the right lane, to keep moving forward, is a good strategic outcome for many.
I find that you talk around the concept of a balanced score-card. Have you used one? If so, what is your experience? What are your thoughts?
I can imagine that a balanced score-card may not be your favorite tool. I say that because you state a need for strategy to change in a changing world. A BSC may seem too static. However, a BSC does address many of your other points as a strength: align and integrate, transform strategies into plans and don’t abandon strategy too early. A BSC I feel can also change with a situation, but only when well implemented. That may be the biggest challenge: fully implementing a well-thought-out BSC.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
I think a balanced score card can be a component of how strategy ties to execution. BSC was a key part of the work I managed at Forrester research when I led the collaboration and knowledge management practice (which included business intelligence).
My experience has been mixed. One of the reasons BSC was within my practice was because many organizations, once they decided on strategic measures, then spend more time creating BI systems to pump numbers into the score card than they did either defining the measurement or acting on what it told them.
You are correct in your assumption that I don’t think they are agile enough, but that is a practice concern, not a real concern. If the people who own the score card change them to reflect emergent strategy, then they will be agile. The difficulty is that once you spend, as the link to the HBR article references for one client, 30 months creating a score card, how flexible are you going to be when you realize that something in that 30 months of work isn’t correct. Which then leads to the moose/muffin issue. If I go explore that thread, what else might unravel.
I also think that balanced score cards, like many management tools, can lead to abstraction issues. The strategic dialog that led to them may have been human and visceral, but once defined, the numbers, their arrangement and their display float conceptually above the organization like something in augmented reality. People coming to the numbers without the experience of having developed them often don’t connect to them in a meaningful way.
My answer to that is not to abandon the idea, but to go well beyond it with on-going strategic dialog. That includes strategic dialog when on-boarding senior leaders and executives. Nothing can be static. People need to have a way to interact, comment and elucidate the numbers in a BSC. And of course, the academic image of the cards are just that — because in real world implementations, there are usually reports and explanations that go with any numbers.
And then their is the knowledge management issue of giving people time to do something about the numbers that isn’t just a surface reaction (an order to fix a number that is a low, a quick reward for something that is good). Organizations need to know if it is the number or the practice/policy that makes the number low, and they equally need to understand what makes a number consistently good — and what might disrupt a trend of goodness. And that is all messy and complex and not easily placed into the a score card. Yes, they can be used to “quantify” intangibles but the intangibles often belie measurement because of their complexity. Coming up with a single measure may create a kind of intellectual triumph, but does it do justice to the thing being measured?
So there is my rant. I look forward to your thoughts, and I hope, the thoughts of our fellow learners.
Here is a link to an HBR article which is probably the best discussion out there on the topic of strategy and BSC.
Frank O'Brien says
Thanks for shedding light on a few thoughts I’ve been having regarding Strategy. I’ve been reading Julia Sloan’s work and wondering what critical dialogue, critical listening, and critical reflection actually looks like for organizations. At some point in the process, reflection needs to be translated into actionable items OR as you point out in the paragraph ‘ Transform strategies into plans’, work that’s being done already needs to be recast so that it can be more clearly viewed in light of the strategy. So, what I’m hearing is a shift from planning to actions.
But what if the plan sucks or it becomes over come by events?
There again, you mention a feedback mechanism that allows for change ‘Keep the strategy updated’. For me, this seems critical. Hey, we set this course, it’s not working (for ‘fill in the blank here’ reason), let’s adjust, scrap, or turn hard right.
As a student, I have a tendency to fall into the perfection trap which means critical dialogue and thoughtfulness generally will not fail. However, it can it often does. But with your mechanism for update, it reminds me things don’t need to be perfect to get underway … we can always adjust as needed.
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Not familiar with this particular work, but I am with other forms of “active listening” and “strategic dialog.” I think this is part of the learning strategy. You need to listen, to discuss what you hear after reflection and then be willing to do something about it. If you have that strategy in place and do nothing with the learning, then the strategy is not real and the feedback is costing your rather than adding value. For me this is all about being real, about embracing what you mean. And to be clear, just because you have feedback doesn’t mean that bias will make you not hear something you don’t want to hear, or interpret something you do hear in a way that moves it from truth. Just having this processes in place doesn’t ensure strategic action, it just makes the strategic action more likely to be better (I won’t say right because I don’t think there are any absolutes in strategy).
If we go back to Weinberger and Too Big to Know our tendency is to make the complex simpler, which really means less accurate and less true. Representative perhaps, but not accurate. If you act on something that is representative but not true, you will be acting through an abstract into the real world and that usually doesn’t work out well — again with the messiness. Where their is misalignment between the abstract and the real world conflicts emerge in the spill over and bleeding out. Can’t make it more visceral than that.
I really like your final note regarding how strategy isn’t always about change. I’m with a young company and ‘strategy’ is tossed around often. It’s easy to think “we could be doing a bit better if we just (fill in the blank)”. Talking about strategy seems to naturally suggest talking about change – I think it takes discipline and leadership to stay the course and know that strategic plans take time to unfold.
“Let it work, don’t work it over.”
Looking forward to our next meeting!
Daniel W. Rasmus says
Class: please include questions, comments, suggestions or ideas here. I look forward to the dialog!
“Learn, adjust and work through the difficult moments. It is OK to abandon strategy, …. Navigating through or over obstacles provides deep and meaningful stories for those who experience the test, and an emotional connection to the strategy that can be taught.” I love this thought it is very difficult to do in practice once you have committed time and energy to a plan but it is a useful and important skill to have in your tool bag when you are facing the need for change in your project or organization. It allows you to learn, reevaluate, and evolve your direction all while looking at the challenges not as a failures but as useful lessons for the future. I am reminded of a rafting trip in a drought. It was fun to swim around and waddle through the shallow spots but at some point the best plan was to get out of the river and walk to the truck. We all remember the trips with challenges and the crazy adventure of overcoming the challenges.