Escaping strategy hibernation
So, in my last two articles [1 & 2] I shared my mental model around strategy. These thoughts form the basis of how my strategy work looks like on a daily basis and how I want it to be:
- Actionable and empowering
- Bold and inspiring
- Collaborative and interdisciplinary
- Supporting agency, responsibility and conscious decision-making
- Made for real life
Now it’s time to shed some more practical light on how I put these things into action in my daily life. Obviously, I can’t tell you about this one thing, one model or one habit that is miraculously solving all my strategic challenges. Nevertheless, there is one big chunk of a set-up that sets the base for my strategy rhythm. And this is what this article will be about.
Escaping strategy hibernation
It all started a couple of years back. At that time, I worked with a team of amazing colleagues who were all brilliant when operating alone, but somehow when thrown together, there was no collective genius that magically appeared but rather collective brain drain. Next to strong aversion to anything strategic because it really hadn’t made such a big difference prior. (Some of the stuff that I wrote upon in the previous edit). I call this strategy hibernation. Nobody felt responsible. There was this notion that some leaders at the top would probably take care of it. Whenever it appeared on the agenda, the reaction was to lean back, tune out and pull out the imaginary popcorn to prop the scene. Lots of talking, little action.
Infusing movement and a healthy sense of urgency
Inspiring others into movement and catalyzing them into action (sometimes even without them noticing) is probably the most dominant theme of my working personality and the thing I enjoy doing most <3 An energy-drained environment is my worst nightmare, so I wanted to bring strategy energy back to this group. This is what I intended to do. Infusing strategic intent into the group, setting up a strategic pact that people would confide in, while keeping the daily business running. What I didn’t want is some very big transformation thing that started with reading 10023 slides of powerpoint. The result: A framework for collective action, that you could call mission-based strategy.
(Probably, since it’s the internet age, there is already a similar framework out in the world with a fancier name and method and everything, but I honestly just used my brains, guts and experience in leadership and some ver to create this and tried it out, until it worked (obviously benefiting from sparring, feedback and the amazing brains of my colleagues at that time). I’ve tried out various ways of it, failed, tweaked some things, dove into learnings and reflection, collected some feedback, refined it along the way - and now am very happy with the overall framework because it generates the outcomes I want. In short: it works for me, my colleagues and the context I’m in. (I also learned where it doesn’t work, but more on that later on). So, here it is in a nutshell:
The framework consists of 5 significant elements:
no. 1: Vision State
The vision outlines the future desired state, all missions need to contribute to. It answers the question: How do I want my company, department, team to look like in 3 years time?
Missions are strategic initiatives that slice the overall vision into concrete, manageable challenges, that we have either collectively identified or that we have decided to be a field of growth for us. They are our bets and hypotheses on our shared future, that we want to focus on during the next months. They are shortlived, not dragging on for years. They can be pitched by anyone in the leadership team (or beyond) and are assessed according to how much impact they promise for reaching our desired state.
Missions in our companies range from
- innovative experiments that we want to try (like e.g. a new product or experimenting with remote working models)
- development we think is essential for progress and success (like organizational learning or adopting new tools)
- or concrete problems that we see arise in our organization and that we want solved (like lagging processes or an onboarding that doesn’t fit the remote age)
So, it can be many things. It’s a potpourri of things to do, no symmetric boxes and that’s ok because that’s how life works. It’s just about getting shit done and learning along the way. I like the word mission - because it creates the right image in our brains. A mission is something intense, a burst of energy, something that can fail, something that you need to be well equipped for, something that has a critical problem at its heart, something that sounds like you need an engineer aka a specialist for.
Two things are important. First, the mission has a critical urgency, otherwise it’s Mission Abort (see below). Second, the mission has a concrete scope and aim that is explained in a written briefing document, but it has no concrete deliverable defined. This is super important: we don’t tell mission team what to do and how to do it, but give them the full autonomy and responsibility to solve that question, problem etc in the best possible fashion.
It’s just about getting shit done and learning along the way.
no.3: Mission Teams
Missions are little interdisciplinary expert crews that work together on finding the best possible solutions for a problem. They are interdisciplinary, always. (Yes, strategy is a cross-functional undertaking). They are level-and hierarchy-agnostic and just about competence and motivation. The mission team is selected based on their competencies, their strengths and passions and their time available. Importantly, the team needs all resources and competencies on board that are necessary to solve the issue for good.
no.4: Mission Abort
Every month, there is a mission update in front of the team and progress (or non-progress) is made transparent. If there is no progress or not sufficient progress visible in a mission, it is stopped immediately, all resources took off and buried forever.(Unless the group collectively decides to give it another try, but this is a conscious renewed investment.) Sounds a bit dramatic, but it is actually the game changer to the whole framework.
It shifts the playing field into outcomes as a default mode. You need to continuously prove that the resources and time invested in the mission are worth the result. It’s is a litmus test if the mission is really critical for the business, if it has enough backup or if it is actually the right hypothesis for the problem. Thus, the investments are kept at a reasonable minimum. I'm not talking about doing things for the sake of doing things, but instead critically questioning if we are on the right path or if we are just following autopilot or turning into a debate club.
Thus, mission abort is a great way on creating urgency, a collective sense of action and furthermore, a sure-fire way of getting better at prioritizing and learning how to leverage collective learnings and experiences.
How many initiatives, projects or innovation experiments are zombieing around your company, half-dead to dead already, but never fully finished, eliciting cynic comments at every corner and draining budget and energy? This is the fastest way of getting rid of them all.
no.5: Progress Board
The progress board shows all missions currently running. The sum of all missions is basically the equivalent to the corporate strategy in action. It serves two purposes. It provides transparency to the rest of the company who is not actively involved in the missions, which I believe is very important because it generates better decisions and makes dependencies visible. Second, it makes missions accountable. Basically anyone in the company can ask a mission teams for details or will see when there is no progress. You can’t procrastinate your way out of this and this creates drive for visible outcomes and real action and thus, impact.
So far, very few powerpoint charts have been drafted. It’s a strategy alive.
What I love most about this framework
It’s a strategy russian doll, it’s nested and allows strategy to infuse behavior on multiple levels. I use it with our leadership team to define and enact our corporate strategy, but it can be used just as well to support individual strategic topics, or enact a team strategy or department strategy or whatever. Actually the best part unfolds, when it is used across different levels and fields, because it makes transparent how these individual strategic initiatives depend on each other and contribute to the bigger picture.
What works well with the framework
It creates strategic alignment across the organisation.
It supports better decision-making and right types of delegation.
It finds the right balance between collective genius and autonomy.
It focuses investments on opportunities worth solving and avoids spending money on topics that don't lead to outcomes.
It creates a learning rhythm and experimental mindsets.
Pitfalls for this framework
I’ve tried this framework in different contexts, in different organizations, on different levels and in different maturities. What needs to be said is: it takes a while to get into the rhythm of things and the longer you practice it, the better you get at choosing the right missions and create meta learning loops. The second thing is: it takes involved human beings that are able to self-organize, able to collaborate and able to carry responsibility for short distances or the whole way. Or who are willing and dedicated to become all of those things. The framework supports these values and way of working along the way but without a small invest individually and culturally from the start, it just doesn’t work. Which I have experienced. If you work with people who simply don’t care about the bigger picture or have been used to sitting in the observer’s seat for too long, judging decisions but never contributing to them, it will be hard to motivate them to create this kind of action and it will be very frustrating to see no progress and many mission aborts.
I'm on the other hand incredibly lucky and fortunate to work with people who are just what it needs to have this working. So thanks to my colleagues for kicking off mission, aborting them when it's necessary and holding me just as accountable for outcomes as themselves. I hope it's as much fun working on this for you as it is for me every single day. (Cheesy mode: off).