What is Strategy?
Organisations often think of strategy as a plan for achieving a specific future. This plan is created by a small group of people who then inform others of the vision of the future and how it will be achieved.
A Compass, Not An Alien Artefact
This process can result in the production of a strategic document that appears opaque if not irrelevant to the rest of the organization. I have sat with many a group attempting to ‘decode’ the strategic document just handed down from on high into something that is meaningful, useful or compelling in their local context. Generally the connection, the relevance, is more created than uncovered.
Strategy is the lodestar of organization: it creates direction and holds things together. Without a sense of the over-arching purpose, direction and values of the organisation it is difficult for people to prioritise amongst the many competing demands on their time and energy. A good strategy acts like an internal compass for all employees, enabling them to prioritise their activities against a common understanding of ‘the most important things’, even when working in isolation.
It is possible to create strategy in a way that understands it not as a plan handed down by omniscience others, but as a co-created organizational story of future direction and intent. Here are some tips for working with strategy in this way.
How To Build Your Compass
1. Invert the usual process
The usual pattern for strategic development is that a small group of people design ‘the strategy’ which they then attempt to get the rest of the organization, the large group, to adopt. It is quite possible, as our case study ‘Making Strategy Real’ shows, to invert this process by involving a large group of stakeholders in initial strategic conversations, which a small group then write up as the strategic document. This approach allows data analysis, theme identification, creation of new initiatives, commitment to outcomes, common vision, motivation and energy for change to be created simultaneously rather than in staged sequences. Given this, change is likely to happen much more quickly.
2. Create positive energy for change
Large group co-creative approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry or SOAR create energy for the change right from the start. However, if the organization is doing strategy more traditionally all is not lost. We know that inducing positive mood states and helping people identify their strengths helps people engage with change, even if it is imposed rather than self-generated. So create opportunities for groups to identify what they are doing that points in the new direction, the successes they are achieving, the changes they are making, and the resilience they are demonstrating as well as the endless opportunities for identifying shortfalls, delays etc. Spend time helping people identify their strengths and working out how to apply them every day.
3. Recognise that strategy is what people do
Strategic becomes a ‘lived’ process as people make different decisions, moment-by-moment, to those they made in the past. While big ‘strategic’ events are important for various reasons, it’s micro-moment differences and decisions that add up to change. Every conversation, every decision, every action is either pointing towards the desired future direction or away from it. However habitual behaviour, aligned to past strategy, is strong. Therefore attention has to be paid at the granular level to the language used and the way things are talked about, as well as to what is being done, to create new patterns.
4. Use ‘word and deed’ to create new organizational fields
Drawing on quantum physics, Wheatley identified that effective leaders implement new strategy by their words and deeds. They choose words and deeds that fill the conversational, meaning or social space with clear and consistent ideas about the new strategy, for example how the customers are to be served. This kind of behaviour creates a new system ‘field’, one strong in congruence, influencing behaviour in only one direction. In effect they create a field of influence that make certain behaviours more likely.
5. Help people understand what ‘strategically aligned behaviour’ looks like
People often have difficulty translating the words on the page of a strategic document into ‘what it means for us’. One way to help people create a stronger vision and sense of what the new strategy looks like is to seek out early examples of behaviour that is ‘pointing in the right direction’ and to pro-actively amplify and broadcast these stories. These are stories that exemplify ‘yes, this is what we want, this is what we mean’. It’s hard for people to imagine things they have never experienced. Sharing stories that act as models of what is required helps people to ‘get it’.
6. Recognise strategy as an emergent process
Strategy becomes a lived reality in an organization through an emergent process. People have to feel their way into ‘doing’ the new strategy. Sometimes organizations act as if strategy can be dictated and people can start working in this new and different way with never a false step being made. This expectation hampers progress as people are afraid they will make a mistake, whilst also quickly creating the sense of things going wrong. Recognising the enactment of strategy as a discovery process, with false starts, blind alleys and a general iterative ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process, helps greatly in creating and sustaining momentum for change.
7. Retell the story of strategy around the organization
The strategic ‘story’ needs to be shared in many different ways in many different contexts with many different groups. We work out what we mean by what we say through this process of telling and retelling. The creation of strategy is not a uni-directional communication process, it is a collaborative co-creating dialogue process. Organisational understanding of what the words on the paper mean in practice emerges through shared dialogue.
8. Create a strategy that is both familiar and different
We can conceptualise strategy as a fiction. It is a fictional account of a possible future. Ideally it is a co-authored story (see point 1) but often it is a story created by some people that they need others to believe. To grasp and hold our interest stories need to be both credible and unfamiliar. Appreciative inquiry is perfect for this. The articulation of the best of past in which we recognize ourselves offers the ‘credible’ part of the story, while the following three stages, dream, design and destiny, offer the generative part of the story. During these phases, the organization creates a picture of itself that is built on the familiar yet is importantly different, new.
9. Make the strategy tangible
The way this is usually done is to produce a report. The printed word is more tangible, carries more weight, than just words. When we hold the document in our hands we can see that we have done something, much more so than when we emerge from a dialogue event with ‘just’ different ideas in our heads. The challenge is to go beyond just a document. How else can the organization make the new strategy tangible? Pictures, logos, diagrams are all part of this process. Encouraging people and groups to physically model (with Lego or plasticine for example) the past and the future, and then talking about the difference, can help with this.
10. Strategy is a verbal activity
Finally, as a summary of most of the above, it is important to recognise that strategy is a verbal activity. How we talk is different to how we write. The written strategy document is unlikely to be a direct source for effective verbal explanations. Different groups and different people need different approaches if they are to ‘get it’. Ideally the talking comes before the writing, so people can see their words in the document. But it is quite possible to reverse the process, helping groups create a verbal account of the handed down written word. Which I believe brings me back to where I started.
More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.
See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.
Appreciating Change Can Help
Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Leadership and Culture change.
For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715