Sarah Beart
04 July, 2018

Some years ago, we were asked to tender for some work with an organisation which was creating a new five year strategy. The director responsible told us that the strategy he’d inherited sat unread, and largely unimplemented, on the shelf of his classy, glassy corner office. It was a beautifully written and presented document, containing almost nothing anyone disagreed with. And yet it was irrelevant to the organisation’s current situation; a lot of water had flowed under the bridge in the world’s financial systems since its conception. The new director wanted to find a way to get the executive team and those lower down the organisation much more involved in the new strategy, but at the same time he was nervous. How would he go about it? How much analysis would he and others have to do? What kind of external consultants would he need, and how much of his and others’ time (and money) would it take? What would the politics be like? What would happen when people disagreed with each other about what to do next? Would anybody actually do what was agreed?

We proposed a highly involving process for the executive and senior managers of the organisation, one which involved a series of focused and facilitated conversations, supported by the organisation’s own analysts in a “strategy steering committee” whose members were drawn from across the organisation. The director was still nervous. He told us with a grin that he was comforting himself with the knowledge that if the process didn’t work or got out of hand, he could pull a few all-nighters and write the thing on his own. We knew he was telling the truth, and that the earlier strategy had almost certainly been produced in precisely the same manner!

Swarm in and buzz off?

Strategy has come to hold an almost extraordinary mystique in organisational life. People with responsibility for strategy (and strategy consultants) get paid more than others, and are treated with a mixture of reverence, fear (and sometimes contempt) by those who work with them. Doing strategy seems to cost a fortune, and rely on a swarm of clever, snappily dressed outsiders buzzing around for weeks. All too often we see the kind of outcome we describe above – a lovely set of documents handed over to the CEO for “implementation” even though the ideas may already be out of date before the door closes.  We’d like to suggest that it’s possible to do strategy differently, more economically and with better effect.  We call it “strategy on a shoestring.”

The planning not the plan

When we hear about strategy in organisations, people often refer to the paperwork, the eventual description of what’s been agreed and what people are trying to achieve. We find ourselves less interested in what should be happening than what is happening. Of course, what you’re interested in depends on your view of organisations: conventional strategy work makes perfect sense if you see your organisation as a machine-like creation, operating with high predictability in a generally stable context, and amenable to changing its direction like a car, or being re-tooled and serviced so that it can make different products, faster.

But most leaders don’t experience their organisations quite like this.  A less conventional, but more practical view, sees an organisation as arising from a set of social and conversational interactions between people, which end up with a particular pattern to them so that the organisation has a recognisable membership, purpose, boundary, culture, formal structure and outputs. Getting these things to be different is more tricky than merely issuing a new set of instructions.  In our take on strategy, the virtue is in the conversations that are convened and the relationships that are created. If these conversations work well, then action flows naturally from planning.

However we’re not under any illusions about the difficulty of this for leaders. These conversations take effort to set up and conduct. While good analysis and clear rational thinking is still needed, these conversations require leaders to cope with disagreement, confusion, politics, resistance, and criticism. It’s more uncomfortable than circulating a glossy plan, but when people are involving in the planning itself they are much more likely to get behind you.

Strategy on a shoestring makes for a difference in timing too. Good strategy conversations start the changes rolling; you aren’t waiting months for the strategy black box to unleash its secrets, by which time who knows what’s happened in your market, or in the world. Good strategizing leads to rapid cycles of experimenting and a much more nimble organisational culture which can respond to the demands it faces. Which is why we’re with the saying usually attributed to Eisenhower: “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Critical friends: working with more than the usual suspects

Doing strategy on a shoestring by using your internal resources isn’t a cheapskate alternative (even if it is cheaper). It’s an investment in your organisation’s capability. Using your own talent, judiciously supplemented, makes more sense than paying outsiders to learn all about your customers and your organisation. In one organisation, we explicitly invited “critical friends” to be part of the work; customers and other stakeholders who cared about what the organisation was trying to do and who would have useful criticisms of the ideas and plans under development. This organisation was operating in a confusing and political environment, one where it was all too tempting to produce strategy in a vacuum. It required courage for the leaders to go out and deliberately seek differing views. And it was very useful; critical friends were thoughtful, generous and creative, and the eventual plans much more robust and practical.

Our director with the classy corner office did get his strategy, researched, refined and created by the very people needed to bring it to life.

Strategy on a shoestring next time?

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