“All can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is
the strategy out of which great victory is evolved.” – Sun Tzu
The second layer of the management system, built on the Leadership foundation, is Strategy. Leadership makes sure there is a core context — who we are, where we’re going, what’s important to us, and what we’re trying to accomplish – that serves to align all stakeholders. Once you decide where you’re going, strategy determines how you get there.
Strategy often gets a bum rap. Some of that reputation may stem from gloriously bound volumes that collect dust, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The most expensive sort of management consultants is brought in to develop grand strategies that the most expensive sort of operating managers can’t – or worse, won’t — implement.
The antithesis of the stereotypical strategic plan comes from former Southwest Airlines CEO, the late Herb Kelleher: “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” Tom Peters, a big Kelleher fan, uses the acronym WTTMSW: Whoever Tries The Most Stuff Wins.
There was an article in the March 2016 Harvard Business review about The Limits of the Lean Startup Method. The takeaway is that unbounded experimentation may not be as effective as thinking before acting. The Plan-Do-Check-Act quality tool has been around for decades and may be an effective guide. So like our earlier salt metaphor (i.e., don’t fall for too much of a good thing), planning is a good thing. But quickly stress action, test the outcome, adapt and repeat until you get the intended results.
Strategy has two key aspects: plan development and plan deployment. Many organizations get the development part; only the best organizations get the deployment part.
Plan development is more about asking (and yes, answering) questions.
- What are the competencies where we excel? That others struggle to match?
- When do we win? With whom do we work that helps us win?
- When do we lose? Fail to meet customer expectations? Have uncompetitive products or services? Go fishing in the wrong ponds that hold no fish?
- How do we view our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? [Yeah, SWOT is still relevant.]
- How is the outside world changing in terms of PESTS (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, and Sector factors)?
- Are there gaps in our capabilities and capacity to grow?
From these inputs you synthesize a 3-5 year (or longer) strategic intent, a clear statement of a direction and competitive goal that everyone easily gets. A broad list of early tactics quickly follows. You also define specific key measures that mark progress to the objective.
Plan development isn’t easy; it is necessary but not sufficient for success. Success comes from relentless execution, informed by a well-crafted plan. Plan deployment is a project, more often a program of projects, requiring the same disciplines.
- Clearly set roles and responsibilities, and make sure everyone knows what they’re committed to making happen
- Identify the important changes in your offerings, your customers and markets, your suppliers and partners, and how you operate
- Set the mechanisms for planning, tracking, and reporting all initiatives
- Balance the financial and other resources to support strategic plans and meet the needs of current operations
- Allocate resources to create the conditions of success for the accomplishment of the plans
- Consider financial and other risks associated with the plans that must be mitigated to ensure the financial sustainability of the organization
- Develop HR plans to create the conditions for accomplishing short- and longer-term strategic objectives
- Consider the impacts on your people and any potential changes to capability and capacity needs
- Key performance indicators for tracking the achievement and effectiveness of plans
- Consider when and how to revise and implement modified plans if circumstances require a shift in plans and the rapid execution of new plans
If you find yourself getting bogged down in plan development, remember Kelleher’s model and just do things. If you find yourself getting bogged down in plan deployment, identify the constraints and clear them… fast.