Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

An approach to strategy: principles

Organisations in the twenty-first century face complexity, uncertainty and disruption. In the face of these challenges, strategy enables action.

Whether you work in the public, private or not-for-profit sector, you’ll probably relate to the idea that the world has become more ‘complex’ and ‘uncertain’. Things sure move a lot faster than they used to.

You may also relate to the idea of ‘disruption’ and the sense that new threats could come from a number of directions at any time.

Strategy is a powerful way to approach these challenges, particularly the ones currently faced by people and organisations.

What is strategy and how is it useful?

At its most simple, strategy is a way to get from here to there. It’s about making sense of the prevailing conditions and tackling them in the way that makes most sense. This is particularly valuable and important for organisations as they orient themselves to, and act in, a world that demands fundamentally different things of them.

Calculated action

Good strategy mixes thinking with doing in a way that results in calculated action. Calculated action streamlines the efforts of people and organisations towards the outcomes they want. Unfortunately, this is something that is hard to do well.

In order to mix thinking and doing effectively, it’s important to consider the conditions being faced by many organisations today.

Prevailing conditions in the 21st century

‘Complexity’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘disruption’ are buzzwords often attached to life and work in the 21st Century. What these words actually mean relates to larger shifts within the global and economic environment. These shifts, and the conditions they have created, set the backdrop for strategy across all industries and organisations.

The world is more volatile

The pace of change is rapid and change can ripple out far from the point of impact. Events and decisions made overseas can impact locally and overnight.

People expect different things

Cultural narratives have expanded and fragmented into many voices. There is no single source of information. Communities are louder, more diverse and less united than they’ve ever been.

Bigger financial risks and rewards

The game of capitalism is now anyone’s to win, but not everyone does. Structural inequalities accelerate the gaps between the haves and have nots. Spectacular wins are possible, but spectacular losses are far more common. This has flow on effects for all organisations enmeshed within industrial economies, including government and not-for-profits.

Getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’

These conditions make for a challenging strategic environment. The number of variables are almost impossible to calculate. Instead it’s best to approach strategy with three principles in mind.

1. Know the territory

At its best, strategy uses a ‘map’ and a ‘compass’ with which to navigate the challenges of implementing change.

For organisations, these are often artefacts that anchor the strategy, like a roadmap, some principles and a list of constraints. But the only measure of how good it is should be whether or not it is useful. The focus of ‘planning’ activities should not be to create a perfect plan of action, but to identify the goals and parameters that guide it.

2. One step at a time

A common reason strategy fails is that people get caught up in the planning and calculation aspect of strategy.

Mapping can be a time-consuming activity. It is easy to over invest in identifying possibilities and probabilities, engaging with stakeholders, weighing up different options and planning out stages and steps. This exploration can be useful, but only if it helps create movement toward the end goal.

3. Co-creation is best

Another reason strategy is often ineffective (or less effective) is when it fails to engage the right people by creating a false boundary between those who ‘make’ the strategy and those who deliver it.

Often these people are not considered a vital part of developing strategy, meaning that their valuable input and insight is lost. The end result is that they are handed a ‘map’ and a ‘compass’ that makes no real sense to the realities they face on a daily basis.

The best people to involve in strategic process are the people who will be most impacted by the outcome. When strategy is co-created with these people, magical things can happen.

A practical framework for strategy

This approach to strategy is also underpinned by a simple framework. Read my next essay, A new approach to strategy: framework.

Written by Beth Hyland, Strategy Designer and Futurist at Thick.

Read more essays from the Thick team.

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