It is the time of the year that (finally) people spend some time talking about strategy. Not nearly enough in my book, but at least a glimpse at a stop in time so assess the business and look ahead. It is refreshing and frustrating, all in one.
Tactics vs Strategy
People often think that they do lots of strategy when really all they are doing is fine tuning tactics. Regular catch ups are meant to assess business, perhaps look at KPIs, perhaps look at performance vs. targets. Rarely is there any time to assess whether we are moving in the right direction or whether anything around us has changed in a fundamental way. I get it. It is hard to tell the forest for the trees when you are deep in the weeds of business and focused on what keeps you alive: producing. But call it what it is: tactics. Both are important for a business to thrive. There is little use for strategy without tactical execution. But there is also little north for tactics without a strategic view.
Does it really matter?
Well, I am biased in that answer really. This is the area I am passionate about and have dedicated my work in the last 8 years. Helping businesses grow. Helping businesses sustain themselves. Leader or follower in each product area, innovating or defending from innovation, growing or downsizing.
In fact, the beauty of no complacency is that we often go back to the drawing board and challenge ourselves. Keeping that going is that I do.
So how do I “strategise” and get to a vision?
I am assuming you have some sort of business here (though some of these thoughts could apply to launching new businesses). For ease of simplicity let’s say you exist, have some clients, have some revenues, have some products. There are key points in reviewing your business and finding the right strategy, and don’t worry, none of them needs a power point slide. At least not yet
Talk to People
I have recently started “auditing” one of our businesses. That is my informal name for an informal strategic review where I am not asked for any outputs other than thoughts. What best could I be asked for than to give my thoughts. Now really. The point is that I am no longer establishing a strategy, but rather starting with an assessment of where we are vs. what I would expect them to be. For this, I am talking to people in different parts of the business, asking different and similar questions, looking for points of commonality and discrepancy.
Talking to people is by far the best way to evaluate a business. That is more often than not what consultants do. They go around and ask people about their businesses, only to spill it back to senior management in the form of PowerPoint slides (OK and some analysis maybe).
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answersVoltaire
What makes consultants be valuable when they are doing a new project is that they are not afraid of asking questions. In theory, they come with no preconceived ideas (other than industry knowledge) and therefore they are just doing a deep dive into understanding how the business operates. I find that operating in that manner achieves the best outcome when you are really wanting to do a business review (and not just trying to produce a nice document).
Asking questions that are honest and somewhat controversial, second guessing ourselves is key to be able to challenge the status quo. Why are we doing things in a certain way? What shows us that we are making progress? Why are numbers down the way they are? What will make things change? Do we even know?
When asking questions, even if it is your “baby” business, remember – don’t be defensive. Ideally stop and stay silent and don’t try to defend any constructive criticism on the spot. It is more likely that people will not give it to you in full if you do. You want the honest raw truth!
Rate yourself – good old SWOT
Earlier this year I was working with a business head to assess their business, review where they were so they could try and identify needed actions and strategic direction. I had the most fun doing this project, mostly as it was very much in the form of a strategic coaching chat, but also because he kept it open for questions and honest answers. Together, we developed a rating for each of the areas of the business by client segment, going through what the Strengths were, discussing in excruciating detail the Weaknesses, while also looking outside for signs of possible areas of Opportunities and Threats.
I don’t think I was a big believer in SWOT analysis when I first learned it at Uni. Probably because I learnt it in the context of marketing. But more recently I find it an extremely helpful executive summary for any business assessment. Because most of the times it has a very direct lead into the most important thing – where should we go and what should we do.
Make a Plan
Once you have identified where you think you and the industry or competitors are, it is time to set yourself for action. Strategy is as much about thinking as it is about making a plan. In fact, thinking will do no good if it does not lead to action. That means you have to be concrete in your evaluation (in the previous step) so that you can be just as concrete in the steps needed to get you to the next level. Be it organizational restructuring, hiring people, investing money on a new technology or expanding into a new client segment. Your critical success factors need to be identified in a very tangible manner, with multiple associated steps alongside them.
Don’t just say “I want to launch a new product”. Even though you don’t need a detailed 50 pages plan on how to launch a new product on day 1 it is probably a good idea to have the 3 most immediate steps you are going to need to do to move that idea forward.
It is very easy for us to look at the past and define success. Our biased minds will likely do that on the basis of the numbers most at hand that look in the right direction. Humankind is good at making facts work towards a story. Here goes the old saying of “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
If you want to stay and grow in business, that is not the attitude you want to have. For that, it helps to define your KPIs in advance. Find out what are the lead indicators of success for your business, ensure you can track and measure them and reserve yourself some time every quarter (if not more often) to go through them. Strategy should lead to success.
I could move to the framing of the vision, from what is in your piece of paper to a business plan document. But I think I have beaten that one to death as I explained what are business plans for. Communication is part B of doing a strategic review. But I really do hope people would focused more on the strategy and less on the communicating it bit. Again, they are inter-dependant.