Sunday, June 26, 2016

Strategy Development in Practice

Often, I've found that the best of intentions to do things the "right" way can get lost in translation once the theory meets practice. Although high level think pieces are helpful in terms of setting the tone and overall concept, I find that practical advice it equally essential to really deriving the value from an intellectual approach. Often, folks are too easily tempted to say, "Well yeah, that's how it is done in books, or at big companies or [insert excuse here] but we can't do it that way here" or, "there's not enough time to do it that way here." Translating strategic thinking into something actionable is actually quite hard (as there is some amount of guesswork involved), and it is always quite helpful if you have logical tests or evidence that you can leverage to back up your thinking and bring others along with your vision. 

"Bringing Science to The Art of Strategy" provides a sorely needed framework for both formulating and testing strategy. This approach brings strategic planning out of the rarified air it often resides in and makes it practical and testable, thus making it less of a navel gazing exercise for the executive elite and more a labor of practical planning that everyone should be involved in. It allows naysayers to let their inner pessimist run wild, resulting in a darwinian approach that produces a strategy with proven (initial) results. The trick remains in coming up with "possibilities" and tests that are relevant to your industry. After following this approach, it would be hard for a naysayer to claim that the strategy "isn't realistic" or "couldn't work here" or "doesn't take into the consideration the realities of our industry." 

However, most organizations I've been involved with haven't used such a logical approach. I was excited to take this course because we are currently kicking off the formation of a new three year plan. Although I am fairly new to the organization, in reviewing the last three year plan, I was impressed with how much had actually been accomplished. This is not an organization that keeps a strategic plan on the shelf and never looks at it. I relished the opportunity to bring my expertise to bear on this forward looking effort. However, as we start this process, I can already see some areas of potential problems if we don't correct quickly.

Initially, we were not told to do anything in preparation for the first planing meeting. So we were not going in with "prepared minds." I was happy to see that our Directors had already spent considerable time crafting a list of core values. The mission statement and vision were basically recycled from the previous round of planning. These were presented to us as a document for our input, and we'll be addressing some minor tweaks in a meeting next week. The vision is uninspiring and dated, in desperate need of a refresh. However, the Directors had already started to plan out some objectives, which will also presented to us, essentially fully formed, although our CIO wanted input and questions from the group. I have little confidence that any major changes will result from our feedback. A notable absence, especially in light of the article "Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?" is the lack of a competitive game plan - the very essence of strategy. Perhaps this is hinted at with our mission and vision, but while the Directors had thought about objectives for their areas, they were not really tied explicitly to scope or advantage. It was more a collection of things we want to do or we know we should do in the next three years. One could argue that as a higher education institution (and just a single department in that institution at that), competitive advantage is not really something we should be thinking about. However, I think ignoring it completely is flawed. Does this mean that it is a bad strategy? Perhaps not. But it's definitely a less organized, less logical and less ambitious one than it could have been. And yet, it seems that this is how most organizations attack their strategic planning. However, ours is not yet carved in stone (thankfully). I'll be sending "Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?" to group and we'll see if that prompts some re-thinking of this approach. However, I think many will feel we've already put too much work into the planning for any radical change. It's interesting how much organizations fall back on top-down approaches that slavishly follow their organizational structures than leveraging the mission and values they purport to adhere to mind a true competitive advantage.

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