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Some of the members of Exponential got together over tea and scones to discuss how we can approach 'building strategy'. We wanted to learn from each other, get snippets of wisdom and share best practice that we have come across. Expertly facilitated by Vogel Wakefield, Martin and Mark have, themselves, some great approaches and are keen to turn a strategy from a document written by a keen MBA , shelf stored and dust covered, into an active and dynamic emblem of the approach being taken to grow or change an organisation.
It was a light hearted discussion that meandered around the subjects raised. Coming back to some important points then flowing off again as the mood took.
We started the session asking everyone what they hoped to get out of the time we had together and what we felt we may be able to contribute. Ranging from bringing practical elements together and breaking it down to make it real; learning to tackle different problems with different approaches; getting a sense of direction and best of all, utilising the diversity of the group to get perspectives one may not normally receive.
What is Strategy?We knew that one of the challenges would be to even define strategy.
It is a word often bandied about and often used incorrectly. It seems that it has lost a lot of its original sentiment. Even within our group the definition had nuances and significant differences. Is it a fancy word for a plan with a medium term view? Is it goals and objectives that align to a vision? A way to define the allocation of resources for the desired outcome?
I am not sure we got to a clear definition that we could all agree on, but the sentiment was similar enough that we could discuss the elements without getting down to semantical arguments. Martin asked us to look at how we used a strategy as a way to determine how we could look at good approaches to building it.
We agreed that a strategy gave us a broad approach to help bring focus and it is invaluable in assisting with daily decision making, but it needs to be adaptive to cater for real events and changes in the landscape.
What was clear and largely agreed is that *people* are the most important part of any strategy. They are what makes it work. If you don't give a community or group a vision, recognise them, invest in them and make them feel consistently part of something, it doesn't matter how great your strategy is.
How people affect a StrategyWhen we started discussing people, we got into the challenges of building a strategy in the tangible sense and deciding who to include in that discussion. Should it be top down, dictated by the leader and pushed through? Or do we need to get as many different views in the room? How do we garner those views and who do we omit? If we omit people from the discussion, how do we ensure that they feel included and valuable to the process? We appreciated that one couldn't get every voice around the table for every discussion, but ensuring that everyone within an organisation knows how it was created and that it was at the heart of the organisation, at least allowed for ongoing discussion about it, making it easier to hear the dissident voices and answer their concerns.
Once you have the strategy set and shared across your organisation, it needs to be used to echo the progress and build communication vehicles to remain relevant and continue giving purpose to those delivering it.
We got some great nuggets of best practice here, and at the top of the list was getting as many diverse views as possible, not always easy when you are a small organisation; having both internal and external people involved where possible; asking people to leave their pragmatic thoughts at the door and really invoking their creativity, trying not to think about what you can't do, but about what is possible, hanging the cost. Whilst we know that these thoughts are important in the implementation, we don't want to limit the possibilities in the first stages. Creativity comes from freedom of limitations. Aleema particularly commented how that made a big difference for her when garnering input from her team.
Expertise needs to come from the edges: those that sit at the delivery part of the organisation, those that interact with the consumers, users, customers or clients of any group need to input into the strategy. They are the ones that are likely to be most affected by it. It is the leaders role to address the community and bring them along.
Who sets strategy?Once we have these views, whose role is it to set the strategy? Should the leader lead from the front and set it? Is top down better than bottom up? It is likely that top down will be more coherent but buy in from everyone is harder or takes more time? All of this relies on the competence of the leader……..
Thanks to Michael for his profound statement that 'strategy will only work in a 'well culture'. If any part of the organisation is not ready with the resources and skills required, and the base culture is not right, no strategy will work.
As with most conversations with people, the culture of the organisation was an imperative input into the strategy and how it was delivered. Once a group grows beyond 12 people you lose control. They have emotions you can't plan for. This is when we made a few distinctions between small companies and larger organisations. When does strategy need to go beyond a few aims of the small group of people.
How do you differentiate between delivering on the tasks that you went into business for and enacting a strategy for growth that you don't necessarily have time to implement. At what point do you grow, bring in people to do things because you think growth is good, only to see that you are no longer doing what you enjoy, but are managing others to deliver what you once did? Growth can corrupt a business. You don't have to be big to be great!
There are no wrong or right answers here, but it gave us some great food for thought.
Is your strategy engaging?As the conversation evolved, we started looking at how the strategy of an organisation and individuals within it is changing. We need to engage people to be part of something bigger, to help them develop, grow and learn. It is no longer about just paying the biggest salaries and expecting them to do what they are told. They want to make an impact, they want to be part of an organisation that aligns with their values and ambitions. They want to build their reputation alongside the organisation they are part of. Most importantly, the organisation can't just pay lip service to the trending language and hope no-one notices. They need to lead by example and put effort into how they engage their work force, customers, suppliers and vendors.
It is the leadership's role to create an environment where people are contributing and creating intrinsic value. The people at all levels of an organisation need to be heard, feel that they are being heard and their ideas are being taken seriously. Michael again gave us a great analogy. It is like basketball, there are touch points all the time, but the aim is to keep the ball moving forward. The strategy and its progress should be continually shared, not tightly hidden. The most successful strategies are those that are visible so that the team are constantly reminded how the work they do is contributing to the work of the organisation as a whole.
As a concluding thought, it was clear that a strategy is not a long list of to do items, it needs to be stripped down to the bare essentials,
A strategy it is simple and clear, it is dynamic, with timescales that can be marked to determine progress.
Thank you Martin and Mark for your great facilitation, wisdom and experience!
Thanks to Colin Crerar, Poppy Kerr, Aleema Shivji, Michael Tingsager, Vijay Mistry, Jo Hind, John Were, Willson Hau and Simon Halberstam for your contributions and wisdom.
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