6 questions for a successful strategy

6 questions for a successful strategy

It’s the weekend and you receive an unexpected call from your manager. The team has been asked to prepare a strategy within the next month to be delivered to the Board of Directors. And the bonus, your manager tells you, you’re the person to deliver on this commitment!  On Monday morning you’ll need to explain to your team how you’ll tackle this.

If you’re a leader in an organisation you’ve likely had a call like this. If you’re a director of your own business, the call was likely very similar, but perhaps it was from a client needing to solve a particular problem.

Over the years I’ve had this call a number of times.  Here are 7 questions I use when designing any strategy process. These questions bring focus to strategy work and have saved me time and time again from going down rabbit holes.

1. What is the primary question we’re looking to solve?

Before we can deliver a strategy, we have to get clear on the question to solve. It seems like common sense, but one of the most powerful roles of the strategist is to clarify ‘which opportunity to capture’ and/or ‘which problem to solve’.

Oftentimes the question people ask me for is:

“What’s the future of _____?” (eg. “what’s the future of digital?”)

This is where I like to get more specific.  So I ask:

“What would knowing the future of digital help you with?”

“Well, if we had this, we’d know what devices our customers would use so we could build the right things.”

“I see.  So what you want to know is ‘How could the changing customer use of digital devices within the next 3 years affect how and what we invest in?”

“You got it!” they say.

I wish it was that easy :)  You get the idea.  A little focused conversation can quickly get to the heart of the real question.

2. What outcomes/objectives are we seeking?

Once we’re clear on the question, we can look at the outcomes and objectives for the strategy work. Here, I recommend identifying the top 2 to 4 objectives.

As an example for the question above 4 outcomes might be:

■ Educate leadership of the dynamic shifts affecting our industry/market
■ Provide principles to guide investment over the next 3 years
■ Give a clear rank of development priorities for our software teams
■ Build ‘people talent’ by knowing what skills to strengthen for the future

Most strategy work requires an ‘education’ component. Whether this is educating people who participate in strategy creation, or those people who are the audience for the work. I’m surprised how rarely ‘education’ or ‘learning’ is written as an objective for strategy work, which is why I often include it.

“The best CEOs I know are teachers, and at the core of what they teach is strategy.”
~Michael Porter

3. What artefacts will fulfill the outcome?

The best strategy work answers two questions when creating outcomes.

First, ‘who is the audience for the materials we produce’? Whether this is a CEO, a management group, or a funding committee, it’s important to know who the audience is.

Second, ‘in what format will we deliver our work’ (eg. powerpoint, document, etc)?

I’ve seen many strategy projects deliver only a long powerpoint presentation. Too often these are left on the shelf gathering dust. And I’ve seen other strategy projects produce a variety of materials to give the audience the best chance of accessing, remembering and working with the material.

For example, instead of a single presentation, why not ‘layer’ the material and include:

■  A short executive presentation for senior leaders which can be used as a ‘top line’ presentation of 20 minutes
■  A detailed presentation for senior leaders and their direct reports, appropriate for detailed reading and reference
■  Inclusion of rich media material (photos, sketches, videos/audio clips gathered during workshops) to give vibrancy and context to the strategy process
■  Additional materials which can be used to reference the strategy work (score cards, ‘top 10 recommendation’ checklist, source research material, etc)

Often it takes no more than 5% additional effort to capture these materials.  The positive impact from having materials like this for your audience will far exceed the effort.

4. What methods will we use?

Solving any strategy question requires us to use methods from the strategist’s toolkit.

For example, in the past when creating a strategic process I used stakeholder interviews, customer research, collaborative workshops, and prototyping.

Whether your plan requires meeting with 3 industry experts to gain their opinions, or running a half-day collaborative workshop with 50 people, mapping out your methods of choice will help you fulfill your goal.

Today there are so many powerful methods available to create a robust strategy.  To see just how much variation there is, now and then I re-read Rachael Hooper’s paper ‘How are foresight methods selected‘ (direct PDF link).

5. Who do we need to take part?

Strategy is a team sport. When reviewing my most successful strategy projects over the last 4 years, the best ones were those where I involved others. This means finding the people who have an interest in answering the strategy question. At the start of any strategy, I recommend mapping out all the teams and people you wish to be a part of the work.  And then find ways to involve them in your process.

6. What actions will we take based on our discoveries?

A number of years ago I had worked many months on a strategy. The big day came and we presented it to management.

The meeting went far better than we could have expected. At the end of the meeting, the Chairperson said “that’s where it’s all headed!  So what do we do now?”

I didn’t have an answer.  You see we had spent so much time working to create the strategy, we hadn’t put thought into how the organisation could take the next step based on the discoveries of the work.

That day I learnt my lesson. Now I spend time defining the ways the strategy outcomes can be used. To do this I use the ‘objectives’ as a starting point. For example, if one of the objectives was to ‘build people talent by knowing what skills to strengthen for the future’, an action might be for ‘departments to ensure 50% of people they hire have at least 1 of the top 3 emerging skill areas’.

Question:

What questions do you ask when you create your strategy? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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I'm a digital strategist and channel manager with 15 years experience in digital, across marketing, e-commerce, online sales, and digital and mobile strategy. Companies I've worked for include Coles, ANZ and GSK. I'm also a graduate and previous sessional lecturer of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University.