5 Tips for Creating Strategies that Work

“We spent our annual two-day strategy planning session at a retreat. As in the past, we’ve come up with the same vision, mission, values and vague statements. We all know nothing is going to actually happen until we have the next retreat next year, but that seems to be the way it’s done.”

Sound familiar?

Too many leaders say they have a strategy when they actually don’t. Instead, they settle for ‘broad and bland’ that ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.

Like a coach whose only advice is “let’s win”, most strategies fail to deliver because they only embrace big goals, vision, and values. Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of providing organisational direction, but by themselves, they’re no substitutes for the hard work of defining and leading strategy.

We’ve put together five practical tips to help you formulate and deliver a strategy that actually provides you with an edge. 

1. Strategy is not an annual event, but an on-going process.

Imagine if you decided on a destination, got in your car, started driving and then did something else while in motion? Like driving a car, strategy should be an on-going process where you navigate potential routes and take on-going actions to get you to the destination. You need to be aware of what’s going on around you, make informed choices and then make constant adjustments to stay on track.

Strategy is an everyday activity for the leader.

Your Action Plan: Create the habit of continuously gathering information about your environment as well as your organisation. Become aware of shifts and trends around you as they are cues for strategy affirmation or the need for strategy change. Encourage those around you to share their observations with you to enrich the pool of input information.

2. Strategy is not template-driven, it is a leader’s lifestyle.

If filling in a template could derive strategy, we’d all have winning ones. Statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights creates the problem that someone who wishes to conceive and implement an effective strategy is surrounded by empty rhetoric and bad examples. Strategy formulation requires thought, information gathering and intense work – more than can be done in a two-day retreat.

Strategy is a creative activity for the leader.

Your Action Plan: Be curious and analytical. Constantly look for cause-effect connections as you process your data and observations – turn information into intelligence. Make limited assumptions about potential connections and look for information to prove or disprove them. Take a systems approach; build an accurate picture of the connections that make up your business and its environment - customers, suppliers, employees, owners and the community.

3. Strategy requires accurate and extensive diagnosis.

The challenges faced by your organisation need to be identified and properly described. A good diagnosis simplifies the often-overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as the critical ones. This requires turning information into intelligence.

Strategy is a diagnostic activity for the leader.

Your Action Plan: Useful tools and frameworks that provide structure for your analysis include Appreciative Inquiry, Porter’s Five Forces, PESTLE, Drucker’s Innovation Drivers. They can help you to extract information from an often dynamic and confusing environment. Interpretation of the results leads to a diagnosis of your position. The results are cast into a SWOT framework – your strengths and weaknesses are now known as are the threats and opportunities presented by your environment.

4. Strategy requires a guiding policy.

There may be many paths or options that could lead to the desired objective. There is a need to identify and choose an overall approach or route to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

Strategy requires insight into the situation by the leader.

Your Action Plan: Extract viable options from the information gathered. Franz Zemen’s SWOT Spectrum is helpful for this - it matches the organisation’s capabilities with strategic opportunities. These options will be critical areas that need action, resourcing and constant oversight.

5. Above all, strategy requires on-going action.

Steps have to be defined and taken that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy. These need to be clear, actionable and controlled.

Strategy requires the leader to take on-going action.

Your Action Plan: Become a champion for strategic thinking and strategy-aligned action, and empower others to develop in this way. Visibly monitor actions for strategy compliance; refer often to the Strategic Plan to ensure goals are being achieved. Take a disciplined approach to monitoring and measurement. Continuously review the plan in anticipation or response to changes around you.

This article was written by Piet Beukman, an ODI strategy specialist.

You may need some help with developing strategic thinking and strategy-aligned action. We have the experts and experience to support you. Contact Kyran or Nicky – 03 943 2373 or info@odi.org.nz.