A question of strategy

question-of-strategy-sA few months ago, I was delighted to be asked by an industry association to speak at their annual conference about the strategy work that we had done together. It was only when I got there last week, that I found out I was on stage directly after Question of Sport and Rugby World Cup legend, not to mention Strictly Come Dancing star, Matt Dawson.

The fact that he was engaging, inspiring and all round hilarious, didn’t help.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise to find that my speech had actually gone down rather well. Obviously not because of my amazing wit – both my children regularly, and rightly, point out that I’m the man who put the “un” in “funny” – but because the message I gave was right on point.

Despite being commercial businesses, their situation is the same as most charities: their world is changing, and it’s changing faster than ever. In the last 12 months, their customers’ needs and priorities have changed, their competitive environment has changed, the economic backdrop has changed; and in twelve months’ time, it will have changed even more. Which means the strategy they developed a year ago, is probably already showing signs of strain, and will be long past it’s sell-by-date this time next year.

The days where you could create and stick to a five-year, even a three-year strategic plan, are largely gone. Most strategies now have a shelf-life of between 18 and 24 months. Which means the idea of spending three to six months reviewing and renewing your strategy is simply not tenable. You need to find a way to do in three to six weeks, max.

The process I used with the association was certainly thorough. We redefined the role and scope of the organisation, updated the mission, identified a wealth of big areas to develop, and prioritised it into a clear, fully costed plan for the next three years. And we did all that in two workshops over four weeks. It can be done that fast and, increasingly, it’ll need to be done that fast.

The trick is not to bury yourself in data collection and analysis; it’s to rapidly identify the key questions and challenges that the process needs to answer, and to use the wealth of information you already have, to answer them, only going out for more if you absolutely must. There’s no room for circular discussions and extensive navel-gazing; you need focused, well facilitated conversations that stick to the point and get to the answers you need.

And here’s what you need to remember most of all. Strategy questions aren’t like sports questions. There is no “one right answer”. What matters is that you get an answer – an answer that works for you right now – that gives you the clarity to build a plan, with the knowledge that, in a year or two’s time the challenges you face may have changed, the questions you need to answer will probably be different, but the progress you’ve made, the impact you’ve had and the lessons you’ve learned in that time, will help you make far faster, better decisions then, than you can now.

It’s time to stop thinking about strategy as a big process that happens every five years, and start planning it as a short, efficient one, that happens far more frequently, building on what went before, and re-shaping what goes on ahead.

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