The essence of strategy is in relating your organisation to its environment with structures, systems and processes aimed at enabling and achieving success.  Strategy has always been about succeeding in a competitive environment, and increasingly today that pressure is keenly felt by NFPs, community organisations and government bodies as well as by corporate and small business.

Key points about strategy include:

  • Strategy is not just some nice words linked to a vision, and it’s certainly not just a collection of goals and objectives – at some level it must be built around your response to your major challenges and shifts in the operating environment, and staking a real claim for your unique offer to the world – well, to your market anyway!
  • It’s generally better to have some form of strategy than none at all – without it, organisational direction is unclear, any tactical opportunity is up for consideration whether it fits the organisation’s capability or not, and success is much less likely, and not measurable against accepted indicators. Much can be learnt from implementing a strategy, even if it isn’t the optimal strategy.
  • Strategy can be developed in a number of ways, with variations including:
    • when and how you do the strategy work.
      • One distinction is whether it’s an upfront planning process, an ’emergent’ learning process, or a combination.
    • how often you renew your strategy.
      • In periods of incredible disruption such as we’ve experienced in 2020-21 and the post-pandemic years, the time range over which we consider a particular strategic program might be more condensed than ever before.
    • whether you strategise right down to the detail, or keep it higher.
      • In our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) the detail end of many strategic plans could be outdated almost before publishing – and this now virtually forces a higher-order approach.
      • In other words, what are you really in business for, what are the defining challenges you are up against, and how best can you set your business up for that?
  • Particularly for larger organisations, strategy should be considered at several levels – the corporate level, business level, and operational/team levels – see more on this below.

Strategy is real!

 Strategy should not be some fanciful exercise that's just about 'blue-sky thinking'.

But it does benefit from some space and time for genuine creativity, where the big ideas can start to flow ... along with a healthy reality check before implementation planning begins.

Henry Mintzberg, a global dean of strategic planning, wrote about ‘real strategists’ in Harvard Business Review, saying that they “… are not people who abstract themselves from the daily details; they are the ones who immerse themselves in them while being able to abstract the strategic messages from them. The big picture is painted with little strokes” The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning. HBR, 1994.

Michael Porter, another leading global strategy expert for many years now, and a professor at Harvard Business School, emphasises the need for strategy to define and communicate an organisation's unique position. He showed how strategy should influence the way an organisation's resources, skills, and competencies are managed to create competitive advantage. For Porter, dealing with competitive forces was the essence of strategy, and the 5 forces model still has much merit today.


Levels of strategy

Strategy should be considered at least annually in terms of a major review for the whole organisation. To keep it really current, we recommend a review of this 'whole-business' strategy at least once between each annual 'strategy program', and again if prompted by significant shifts in the external environment or internal state at particular moments along the way.

Departments, teams, and individuals should refresh strategy more often.

Organisation size and structure has an impact on how the work of strategy should be done. As noted in the intro piece, in developing strategy for a larger organisation, it’s useful to think about strategy in relation to several levels - corporate, business, and operational levels.

  • corporate level (overall purpose, scope, positioning),
  • business level (competing in particular markets) and
  • operational/team levels (resources, processes and people for specific business functions).

Smaller businesses can still take a leaf out of this book, in thinking seriously about strategy frequently, and at multiple levels.


Strategy or execution?

There’s ongoing debate about whether strategy or execution is more important.

The real answer is that while both are important, good execution of a poor strategy cannot achieve much, and certainly not what you'd ideally want to achieve.

A good or great strategy, while not guaranteeing good execution, is an essential factor in your ability to execute something well. A good strategy will include or enable planning down to the execution level.

A critical element of this is the allocation of resources to the strategy, particularly after a new strategic planning process establishes new goals. Clearly, it's impossible for these to be achieved without the allocation of resources (financial, technical, people). And it's unlikely that they will be achieved without detailed project planning. Many good strategies fail when resources remain attached to old strategies through old structures and old budgets - so do refresh these too in line with the new objectives.

Likewise, it’s critical that your strategy is understood by everyone who makes major decisions, or handles negotiations or external communications for your business. This means getting the communication phase of a strategy rollout right too.


Strategy and Change

Taking a strategic approach means, amongst other things, being willing to try doing things differently. After all, doing the same things and expecting different results is one definition of insanity (a quote misattributed to Albert Einstein /Benjamin Franklin but more accurately traced to Rita Mae Brown‘s 1983 book Sudden Death, and possibly originating elsewhere altogether).

Many businesses have experienced success - even massive success - for a time; then failed when they kept doing the same thing long after the world had moved on.

A significant shift in external circumstances is a sign that strategy needs changing - at such a time even doing the same things consistently well will not keep producing the same results. Kodak is a prime example. Kodak mistakenly believed they were in the business of making film, when in fact they were in the business of making images, or really - memories. Despite having invented the digital camera in 1975, they were overrun by the digital revolution and fell into the new era without new product choices to match it. It was a classic strategy fail, in that because of their focus on past and present product, they didn’t think to focus on the future. In doing so, it was the future client they missed.


Strategy and performance

When it comes to the crunch, performance is what most organisations judge their success or failure by. Staying in business is one thing, but whether you’re a consistent high performer –perhaps being a leader in your field - is the true test. To be a high performer you have simply got to be doing a lot of things right.

Some key factors are the ones we focus on in our services – organisational design, structure and roles, culture, and leadership. When these are optimised, performance follows, as does satisfaction for staff, clients and your community. Strategy is an area where successful delivery and stakeholder satisfactdion are the ultimate measures. Have a look at your organisation from this perspective:

  • Is your vision clear and inspiring?
  • Are big objectives, particular goals and KPIs linked strongly to this vision?
  • Do these cascade across the actual functioning of the daily life and work of the organisation?
  • Are they used to empower decision-making and featured in performance measurements?
  • Do you know the key causes or drivers of performance inside your business, and the relationships between them?

Sometimes it's helpful to look at some classic models when doing strategy:

  • The Congruence Model is based on the principle that performance is derived from four elements: tasks, people, structure, and culture. In this case, congruence or consistency across these elements is seen as the link between strategy and performance.
  • The McKinsey 7S model involves seven interdependent factors that are categorised as either "hard" or "soft" elements: The Hard Elements are Strategy, Structure, and Systems; while the Soft Elements are Shared Values, Skills, Style (specifically leadership style), and Staff. "Soft" elements can be more difficult to describe, and are less tangible and more influenced by culture. However, they are just as important to an organisation’s success.

These models again reinforce that strategy is important, but equally important is that it is linked to other key elements in your organisation.


Strategy and Culture

You'd have heard that strategy eats culture for breakfast? Check out our post on this; it's a good one.


An Atwork Strategic planning process: sample

Here at Atwork, we are constantly refreshing our strategy support programs and processes, and while the sample below is not typical of our most recent approach, it still touches on some key inclusions in a comprehensive Strategic Planning Process. In this approach, we've worked with clients to consider and renew, based around:

  1. Our story – past
    • Celebrating success.
    • Anything not working so well?
  2. Our Game - what business are we in
    • a) Clients – profile / demographics - the client of the future.
    • b) Identifying Events, Developments and Trends (ED&Ts) for the industry and sector.
    • c) Product - key products / services - what do we really make here?
    • d) internal scan: historical financial information, service/program data, research with internal and external stakeholders.
    • e) Competitor information.
    • f) Our major challenges NOW.
  3. Our aspirations and goals
    • a) A novel way to describe our vision for the business.
    • b) What two things would you do to change this business?
  4. Where we play and not play?
    • a) Business and organisational values.
    • b) Goals for the partners/directors/team.
  5. Our positive story – optimistic future:
    • a) Vision.
    • b) Mission.
    • c) Objectives.
    • d) KPIs.
  6. How we will win - an ideal future, but ‘doable’.
    • a) What capabilities are necessary?
    • b) What corporate structure and management systems are ideal /essential to deliver this?
    • c)  Site/s
      • i) Current site/s – Limitations? (particularly relevant in post-Covid re-entry)
      • ii) Alternatives?
      • iii) Growth options.
    • d) Financial plan:
      • i) Pricing strategy.
      • ii) Past and future cashflows.
    • e) Staffing and remuneration:
      • i) What roles are optimal?
      • ii) What can the business support?
      • iii) Succession planning and exit strategies.
    • f) Branding and promotion.
  7. Check: any obstacles upstream (and heading on down)?
    • a) The future is not necessarily going to be more of the same – in fact it's not likely!
    • b) Envisage the next 12 months, 24 months, 5 years - what can be learnt from this?
  8. Action Planning
    • a) “Endings and beginnings”
    • b) Transition Model.
      • Implementation.
      • Cascading goals.

So, let's work together...

We'd be pleased to bring our skills and experience to the game, and customise a strategic planning process for you, that will provide the foundation for you to build on your current success, and enable more going forward.


Getting help with strategy

Developing an initial strategy for your organisation or team, or revisiting strategy at critical times, might be where our strategy consulting services come in.

There are numerous strategic planning approaches, but success-inducing strategy must include:

  • A compelling vision for your business (or department or team) and how it will succeed;
  • High level objectives cascading right through to departmental and team actions;
  • An understanding of the changes a new strategy will bring about - all the elements in moving from ‘as we are’ to ‘as we will be’;
  • Aligning people and systems to the vision so that daily practice contributes to you achieving it;
  • A strong motivation to enable the strategy, do the work, and bring it into reality;
  • Celebrating positive implementation through shared recognition, praise and reward.

Our support includes the pre-work, session facilitation, and can include documenting the plan for and with you.


How we help with Strategy

Typically in Strategy we'll work with the CEO and Board in the initial planning, more broadly internally and with stakeholders in the research component, with the Board and Exec team in the Strategy sessions, and with the Exec/Management teams in the  implementation planning phases.)

To find out more, head through to our services in Consulting (which includes Strategy support) and Support to Boards & Councils.