Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning, Vision, Mission, or Values

This is NOT StrategyA while back, a seminar participant, who was a senior administrator in local government, showed me a nice 1-page statement that was his organization’s “strategy,” his term for a statement of mission, vision, and values describing the borough’s desire to be a preferred place to live and work. I asked him some questions:


Me: Let’s assume that you showed this statement to the top administrator at a neighboring borough. What would she say?
Him: That’s a nice statement. Our strategy document expresses similar ideas.
Me: Are you in competition for attracting industry and jobs to your borough, and would not the neighboring locale want to have the same industry and jobs?
Him: Yes they would.
Me: So, you are in rivalry with the adjoining borough?
Him: Yes.
Me: But, does this document give guidance to you and your employees on how use your resources?
Him: No it doesn’t. We really don’t have a strategy.

He was holding a list of aspirations and guiding values.  His locale was in a competitive situation. It was substituting a nicely-worded poster for the hard assessment of its situation. His borough had many resources, but it wasn’t using those resources strategically.

Here’s a practical test: You have a strategy if your competitors saw your strategy, would they be worried? If you truly have a strategy, the rival will be worried. They won’t fear your aspirations.

An equally-matched rival should fear your strategy, but won’t fear your aspirations!

Aspirations, for most people and most organizations, are cheery statements that provide a sense of energy and closure. They’re comfortable.

Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning

People often fail to distinguish strategy from long-range planning. The result is “bad strategy;” the appearance that a strategy is present when there is none.

Long-range planning is an effort that is focused far into the future, often years. Long-range planners tend to focus mostly on internally-focused plans to accomplish agreed-on goals. Long-term planning is used to project budgets and so forth into the future. Long-range planners assume that the external environment is relatively stable; therefore, the future is predictable. Waves of change are ignored.

Strategy is different in that strategists believe that the organization must be responsive to a dynamic, changing environment. Strategists are skeptics of someone who assumptions that the environment is stable or the future is predictable. Strategy involves ambiguity. That ambiguity starts with picking signals out of the context, and defining a clear core challenge.

As I have written previously, a strategic initiative is a response to performance gap. It’s purpose is to close it.  A leader of a strategic initiative needs to watch out for the “fluff” of attractive artifacts and documents.

Strategy is “hard work” in the sense that tolerating ambiguity is uncomfortable. Maybe it’s more fun to create multicolored poster or a polished brochure?

Posted in Interpreting Strategy Documents, Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking | Leave a comment

Five Ways to Involve Smart New Voices in the Strategy & Agile Innovation Conversation

Next Gen Leaders Smart New VoicesStrategic initiatives – by definition – intend to achieve organizational transformation. The transformed organization will be owned by the next generation of leaders. It makes sense include their energy and ideas in a strategic initiative.
I recently was involved with an exceptional strategic initiative team. One of the things that stood out was how the initiative allowed for – and encouraged the contributions of next-generation leaders. How are you doing at mentoring, coaching and developing them?
Here are five suggestions for including and leveraging the talents of new, smart voices.

  • Engage – Look for ways to make the team experience one of action. Strategic thinkers have a playful mindset. If you don’t know what the word ‘gamification’ means, look it up!
  • Listen – This is a part of engagement, but is so important that it needs to be called out separately. As a generational cohort, we have a group that has been told their whole life that they are exceptional individuals. Ask for their advice.
  • Tweet! – Twitter and other social media can give you a better perspective on the strategic environment. I can open you up to some of the latest and best thinking.Also, check out and participate in Tweetchats, a fast-moving discussion on a special interest topic.

I confess that I was a little slow to establish a presence on Twitter. Now I am active (follow me @GregGithens, and search for #strategicthinking, #strategyexecution, and #strategicinitiatives as some examples). I am learning new and valuable ways of seeing the world of strategy and of work. The 140 character format has caused me be to a more concise communicator.

  • Encourage Disruptive Thinking – Change is prevalent in every organization, industry, and situation. Next generation leaders like to talk about disruptive technologies. Let them!
  • Learn – I stand in front or audiences all the time and see the contrasts of the next generation of leaders with Baby Boomers. Next generation leaders must become competent at 1) thinking strategically, 2) understanding the parts of the business and how they fit together, and 3) driving change.

I teach two seminars that provide for a nice mix of thinking for Boomers and for next generation leader (shameless plug). The first is Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management) which is full of practical tools and insights for the topic. My newest seminar is How to Think Strategically and Apply Business Acumen, which I designed to provide tools for the top-three needs of next generation leaders.

Do you agree that organization need to include new, smart voices in their strategy development and in their strategic initiatives? What other ideas do you have for including and leveraging their talents?

Posted in Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Leave a comment

Is it Possible to Have a Perfect Strategy?

Perfect StrategyThat was the question posed in a recent forum. It’s an interesting question and deserved a response. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve edited and embellished my answer:

“Yes” there is a perfect strategy in the sense that you could design a strategy for a given moment in time that effectively addresses the core competitive challenge.

As I covered in previous posts, strategy is a word for which many well-meaning people have opinions.  Strategy is not goal setting and it is not the steps to a goal.

Because the word strategy is ambiguous, I define strategy as a crafted, designed response to a specific and important challenge. The core challenge is unique to each situation. As the cliché goes, a problem well-defined is a problem half solved. Strategy changes over time, as the business changes. For example, Starbucks (at the time of founding) could afford to be experimental in the tweaking of its concept. Nowadays, under competitive pressure, Starbucks must be much more focused in applying its resources. Starbucks has a different strategy now than when it was founded.

A “perfect” strategy is an elegant design that applies your resources in such a way as to give you advantage. Perfection, in this case, means it is entirely adequate for the situation and you would gain little benefit from further tweaking. It is good enough and you gain more benefits from bearing down on execution compared to polishing a presentation deck.

Other commenters said that perfect strategy was “impossible.” I disagreed, writing,

I suspect those who say that there is no perfect strategy are confusing predictability for strategy. I agree that no person can predict what will happen: predictability is apples to the oranges of strategy.

Do you agree? Is a perfect strategy possible? Do people assume that strategy is a prediction of the desired future?

Posted in Interpreting Strategy Documents, Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Facilitating the Business Model Canvas: A Few Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Value Propositions Strategic InitiativesI’ve had the privilege of introducing the Business Model Canvas to several audiences in the past year. As you might be aware, the Business Model Canvas shows 9 interlocking and integrated elements, the most important of those being the value proposition. The canvas is developed specific to one business, and when completed, promises users they will understanding how your business model works and makes for competitive advantage.

I thought it would be valuable to share some of my learnings as a facilitator in order to help readers know what to expect if they are facilitating or preparing to participate.

By far, the biggest challenge for participants is taking the names of the 9 categories and identifying specific instances.  For example, they list “customers” as a category under “customer segments” instead of breaking that down into more meaningful segments. Perhaps this is because I haven’t had enough marketing people in the sessions.  I find that participants outside of marketing don’t have working knowledge of their employer’s strategies for segmentation.

Most established companies have more than one business model, but their organization is trying to cope by asking people (including the top managers) to run all of the business with one organization.  I’ve tried to anticipate this in setting up the facilitation sessions, but is remains a difficulty because the people who should know their businesses are deeply immersed in their activities and have a tough time stepping back.

It’s best to provide plenty of clear and relevant examples of the Business Model Canvas for other organizations.

Given that the client companies have many moving parts, and individuals sometimes lost in the details, I recommend devoting plenty of time to the development work.  I also find it important to help them understand the value of the exercise:

  • “You are going to see a bigger picture of the parts of your organization.”
  • “You are going to see the value proposition, the basis of your advantage over competitors.”
  • “You are going to gain insights on how to grow your business.”
  • “You are going to gain insights on how to streamline your business models.”

Participants report that they find the exercise very interesting in understanding their business. Every person believes that the resulting canvas is a tool that could be used to guide strategic initiatives.

How have you used the Business Model Canvas? What additional lessons learned do you have?

Posted in Strategic Planning Issues for Strategic Initiatives, Strategy Coaching and Facilitation, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Designing Strategic Initiatives for Results: The Two Kinds of Coherence

constraints and strategic initiative designI’ve met many leaders of strategic initiatives, and nearly every one of them mentions the challenges of resource limitations. But there are other constraints, too, such as perception of time, understanding of the situation, tolerance of ambiguity, leadership, and ability to focus. Design is fundamentally concerned with constraints, and I’ll connect to that point momentarily.

The concept of coherence is an important principle for the design of a strategic initiative. When something is coherent there is a relationship between elements that implies logic and design. Stated simply, coherence means that things make sense. Thus, a leader of a strategic initiative should be asking this question,

How can I recognize and increase the coherence and integrity of my strategic initiative?

We’ll start with recognizing coherence.  There are two types: Imposed Coherence and Narrative Coherence.

Imposed Coherence

As I wrote above, design is fundamentally concerned with the constraints found in the organizational environment. I find it useful to think of a continuum ranging from zero constraints to many constraints.

Policy is another word for design, but the word design is strong in its implications of active thought. The role of design changes as you move along the continuum:

  • When there are no or few constraints, there is too much freedom and a design must be imposed to channel energy and power.  An example of this is an entrepreneurial situation filed with opportunities that are being pursued by energetic people with lots of good ideas. If they try to chase every idea and opportunity they will dilute their efforts. The common design prescription in this situation is to establish a vision and mission statement to inform the organization about why it exists and what it is trying to achieve.
  • At the other end of the continuum, there are many constraints: rules, limited resources, processes, legacy capital commitments and market, etc. Habits and mental models are powerful constraints that tend to perpetuate the status quo. In this case, design is the act of imposing a superordinate constraint on the organization. It might involve removing a constraint that is deeply embedded in the organization’s culture or process. It means saying “no” to things that some powerful stakeholders think important. In other words, it is the act of making hard choices about what objectives are pursued.

To say that something is “strategic” is to say that it is important.  As I’ve addressed in prior articles, it’s a real challenge to develop an understanding about what is most important and then set priorities.

Yet, the idea of setting priorities is commonsense.  Coherence is just another way to say commonsense. However, coherence has some other meanings that add power to the analogy.  A laser beam of light is coherence because all of the waves or fields are in phase. There is a single frequency.  Lasers have power because they focus their power on one point. By contrast, an incandescent bulb radiates lights in all phases and frequencies.  Incandescent bulbs are general purpose whereas lasers are specialist tools.

Now take the analogy to a competitive situation: if your organization is an incandescent bulb and your competitors are lasers, it should be obvious that the laser is going to be more powerful.

How do you impose coherence? That is one of the primary responsibilities of setting strategy and of leadership. I have addressed those competencies in earlier articles.

Narrative Coherence

Narrative coherence refers to a time-based arc of stories and events. As I’ve described in earlier articles, strategic initiatives are prospective stories about moving from the past (the backstory) into the future. A strategic initiative can be seen as a turning point in the organization’s narrative arc.

Designing a Strategic Initiative for Increased Coherence

Narrative coherence and imposed coherence are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can apply them in parallel.

However, you probably want to keep it simple. My advice is to start with narrative coherence and look at the elements of storytelling to find a tension between two forces and the heritage values that run through the narrative. I would also spend some time trying to articulate possible futures, as the strategic initiative is an attempt to navigate the organization towards that new future.

As I consider the narrative, I would work to identify constraints. As you look back into time there were constraints that were adjusted or even battered away! Are there any lessons to be learned from the past?  Next, what are the current constraints facing the organization? Finally, what might be the future constraints?

We’re saving the really tough work for last. A function of leadership is to impose design onto an organization by persuasion or by more formal authority mechanisms. Leaders have to acquire and use power for the benefit of the organization.

For more of my advice related to the constraints and design of strategic initiatives, you can review tools in prior articles, including:

What might be a third kind of coherence?

Posted in Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Leave a comment

Perspective is More Powerful than Vision

Why I’ve dropped the phrase, “strategic vision”

Every once in a while you hear something that changes your entire way of approaching a topic. It’s a powerful moment.

I recently had such an experience watching a video of Jensen Huang speaking to a group of students at Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Huang is the cofounder of NVDIA, a Silicon Valley company that went from start up in the 1990s to a current market valuation of over $10 Billion.

You can see the video yourself at this link and click on the first of the lecturettes.

Visions Are Elitist

Mr. Huang was discussing the concept of a vision statement. He reveals,

I like to use the word “perspective” because it makes it possible for anyone to have one. When you say vision, it feels like only a few selected visionaries of the world can have one. But everyone has a perspective and that’s in fact all visions means.

For me, this points to the solution to many strategy-execution problems.  Having a perspective means that the ideas and direction are open to discussion, inviting more people into the discussion to contribute their perspectives.  Importantly, it avoids the elitist nature of many vision statements.

Having Perspective Allows for Coherence

Huang explains that his company was founded on a perspective that was contrarian to the prevailing 1993 view about the role of personal computers as desktop and office automation tools.

Our perspective was that this particular device was going to be unique in the sense that it has the ability to run programs. And what if we gave it the benefit of running through 3D graphics programs? So that you could explore new worlds, play games – you know play games. And so we started a company and the business plan basically read something like this, “We’re going to take technology that was available only in the most expensive workstations. We’re going to try to make it, reinvent the technology, and make it inexpensive,” and the killer app was video games.

Huang took his idea to venture capitalists who responded that there was no video game market, so people don’t start companies to play games. Even Huang’s parents couldn’t understand his idea,

I remember calling my mom and telling her that I’m going to start this company and she says, “What do you guys do?” I said, “We built this things called 3D graphics chips and people would use them to play games. And she said, “Why don’t you go get a job?”

Huang had a different perspective because grew up in the video game generation and embraced the entertainment value of video games. He could imagine how could be a very large market and a very large industry. For a lot of the people that were older, that sensibility didn’t exist. Huang explains, “at the time our common sense was unique.”

Coherence is a key to strategy. It means that things make sense; there is an internal logic and consistency to the story.  NVIDA’s success has been stellar, and it came from good strategy. That good strategy was the application of commonsense which was both unique and correct.

Are you going to join me in changing the question from “What is Your Vision?” to “What is Your Perspective?”

Posted in Interpreting Strategy Documents, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Real Reason Strategy Implementation is Difficult (and the Solution to It)

Jury deliberatingThe reasons for poor strategy execution (use your favorite search engine) is a list of “usual suspects:” poor communication, poor executive sponsorship, etc. What is the deeper cause of those dysfunctions of strategy execution? It is the very nature of human thinking and social interactions. If we can address these two people-related problems, we can greatly improve the delivery quality of strategic initiatives:

  • Stakeholders lack a mutual understanding of the nature of the situation. Strategy – especially the early activities of environmental scanning and selecting core challenges – involves substantial ambiguity, complexity, paradox, and uncertainty. Much of this ambiguity arises in the organization’s external situation and requires acuity and sensitivity to the underlying structure to accommodate it. There is complexity that is internal, too, as all large organization have silos of expertise that are not understood by others outside that silo.
  • The organization’s social and emotional environment is not supportive for individuals to step outside of their comfort zone. Strategy requires stakeholders to willingly make an investment, despite the uncertain outcomes: it requires commitment.

Both of the above problems are generally related to communications, and more specifically to the conversations that people have with each other.  Most of the time, in most organizations, the conversations that take place involve low-meaning exchanges: events, tasks, gossip about people, and complaints.  Take a look at your emails and texts and see how much meaningful information is really there.

When it comes to strategy, we start to see slightly more meaning in the form of individual opinions. Rarely are the opinions are well-reasoned and based on strategic insight. More commonly, they are just reactions and suggestions for solutions.  Generally, we see a lot of “talking at each other” rather than “talking through the issues.”

I have found a useful way to introduce groups to effective conversations about strategy and execution. It uses an analogy that is familiar to most people from western cultures.

Welcome to Jury Duty!

The metaphor is that strategy discussions are jury deliberations designed to render a verdict. Jury members are selected, receive instructions, listen to evidence, recuse themselves, and then converse with each other to arrive at a decision. Before further examining the analogy, let’s define two key terms:

  • Dialogue involves active use of inquiry to understand the perspective of others and advocacy to present their mental model about the situation and the solution. Listening is key, so that the voices of important stakeholders about the evidence and the narratives that connect the evidence. Dialogue goes deeper than words, it is an attempt to discover and agree to underlying meanings.  What is the core challenge of the organization? What resources have the most power to “tilt” the system in the desired direction?
  • Deliberation builds upon dialogue. People deliberate by using their reasoning skills for the purpose of making collective decisions.  Deliberation is not rushed.

Now, let’s examine how to apply jury duty analogy to strategy discussions.

The first phase is selecting the core team, just like we would select the jury. The ideal core team member is someone who is both competent at strategic thinking, and has organizational power and influence.  We need to let them know that activity will require a commitment of their time, and will require them to focus their attention.

Here is a subtle-but-important point: although we are inviting people to a meeting, we are most importantly inviting them into the conversation. We are inviting them to engage in a sharing of mental models where each will be influencing, negotiating, and visioning.

I recommend addressing the ambiguity around the words “strategy,” and all of the phrases that use the word “strategic” as a modifier (e.g., strategic initiatives, strategic goals, strategic plans, strategic decisions). Even if the person has had training in strategic thinking and strategy, there is likely to be numerous opinions. Regardless of the definition you might be using, we are talking about something important.  Because of the significance of strategy, we need to recognize the users of dialogue and deliberation must transcend casual talk about events and tasks, and opinions.

The tendency of many – in the face of complexity – is to simplify it. It seems rational to break things into pieces, but it can cause problems when addressing problems involving people and culture. The better approach for complexity in strategic initiatives is to accept it and adapt to it. By doing so, you will be more likely to find coherence in your strategy.

The second phase of a jury trial is the presentation is the argumentation phase. Here the jury is exposed to the evidence and the explanations of the evidence. They are counseled to avoid prejudices.

Just like the narrative in a jury trial is a hypothesis to be tested, a strategy is a hypothesis. The jury’s job is to figure out if the hypothesis fits the evidence.

In an earlier article, I explained that solutioneering (proposing solutions before problems are understood) is a common problem for strategic initiatives. Solutioneering is a prejudice for a certain solution, and it can lead to mediocre strategy. Solutionering is most often a person’s opinion based on their world view, and you can mitigate it with attention to dialogue and deliberation.

The third phase of a jury trial is deliberation.

If you are new to the tools of dialogue and deliberation, I think a good start is the ladder of inference (for more, see this article). With this tool, we can see that there is an action element that is akin to strategy (a simple definition of strategy could be that it is a set of actions based on a set of beliefs). Where do those beliefs come from? They come from conclusions that are based on assumptions that are based on data. Assumptions are always subject to prejudices. Data might be incomplete.  As you walk people up and down the ladder of inference, you probe their mental model by requesting of them, “Help me understand you.”

Similarly, if you have a point of view to advocate, use the ladder of inference to climb up from your data to your recommended strategy.

An effective jury reaches consensus.  Similarly, and effective strategy is one that reaches consensus; that is, people agree to support the implementation.

The stakes are high in a jury trial, and the stakes are high in strategy. Do you agree that the jury analogy provides some useful ideas for improving strategy implementation?

Posted in Strategy Coaching and Facilitation, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments