The Big S-Word
First things first: Strategy - deconstructed.
Having a plan is not having a strategy. Having a plan lacks action. And most often this plan is this big elaborate presentation or excel sheet that outlines some way forward, backed by many figures, lots of data and some high level fluffy words. The problem with this: When have you ever been motivated to change your behavior by an excel sheet? For me: never.
To work strategically means that you are able to make conscious and consistent decisions that help create desired outcomes. It’s making tough and bold decisions in the sight of complexity and knowing why you made them.
So most of the strategic work that I have been seeing in corporates, companies and agencies alike never sees the light of day, but sits in desk drawers and gathers dust. So before we talk about how to get it to action, I feel like we need to align on what strategy actually is or what it’s supposed to be.
I made it very simple. For me, the one job that strategy has to do is to create a framework for consistent decisions that happen within an organisation. To work strategically means that you are able to make conscious and consistent decisions. It’s making tough and bold decisions in the sight of complex futures and knowing why you made them. Not more, not less. So, let’s unpack this.
meaning: you don’t just wander around making decisions on a whim or random choices based on unimportant notions like ego, personal desire or bad hair days. Instead you know at any time, why you chose exactly this option, how it contributes to the overall vision and you can share the reason, even when someone’d ask you at 3 am in the middle of the night at gunpoint. It requires you to be able to reflect on yourself and why you behave the way you do.
Strategic choices are in line with past and future decisions. It’s like a pattern of reason and meaning in your behavior. What I see constantly is people having an elaborate plan in place and then next thing you know, they make a decision that completely contradicts the implications their plan.
Instead, you want to consistently act in a way that brings you closer to your vision. If all of your decisions lined up like little domino bricks they should stand in line and create a pattern that makes sense (in contrast to a random collection of domino bricks scattered across the floor - that's chaos or art, not strategy).
Having a pattern doesn’t mean that you can’t change direction along the way, because you realize you’re going the wrong way, it just means that you need to be explicit about it and not just pretend it was part of the plan all along (hint: this is the failure culture everyone is talking about and no-one is living).
So to create this consistency in decisions and behavior, you need to have spent some thought on the implications and effects your actions might have. Who are you impacting with this decision? What are the longer-term consequences? What other contexts are influenced? You need to have thought one step further.
A strategy is always connected to a more systemic view of things - the bird’s perspective. It includes having considered both the past as well as the future.
Bold decisions in the sight of complexity
If you have all the data you need, everything is crystal clear and it’s obvious which route you need to take because all others are bullshit or not working anyway, it’s not really a decision nor a strategy. It’s just common sense or acting rationally. In the sight of complex futures, meaning high levels of uncertainty, you will never have all the data you need or all information available. You can't calculate the future. Having a strategy is always associated with a certain risk, it’s making a bet on the future that requires courage and moral judgment. So making a strategic decision requires there to be more than one good options so that actually choosing one among them is a tough call. It’s being aware and making transparent of what you are deciding against - what you are losing by making this choice. I have made good experience in making these tradeoffs transparent. Instead of only talking the positive parts associated with the decision, it's much more credible to give your team the full picture.
You can't calculate the future. Having a strategy is always associated with a certain risk, it’s making a bet on the future that requires courage and moral judgment.
So, this in essence is strategy for me. Making better decisions in a way that people other than you can comprehend and contextualize and that require making a bet on the future. It means having an answer to the questions of: where am I placing my bets and why? How does it connect to the context we’re in and what needs to be true for it to be a good decision even tomorrow? and What have I decided against? If you can answer these questions - congrats - you’re acting strategically.
Now that I’ve outlined my understanding of the big S-Word and I can pretend that you all agree, we can also talk about how strategy practice should look in a modern, post-Corona environment ;)
- Where am I placing my bets and why? When making a big decision next time, be conscious about why you make it and give transparency on the reasons.
- How does it connect to the context we’re in and what needs to be true for it to be a good decision even tomorrow? How does this decision impact the past, the future, your team, your company? What are hidden consequences or implications you should make explicit?
- What have I decided against? Make these things transparent as well. It will create not skepticism, but credibility that you have thought it through.