WIG CEO Blog February 2020 - Strategy: A Common Challenge

Although it doesn’t seem so sometimes, there is actually more that unites the public, private and NFP sectors than divides them. Strategy is an example. Everyone has one. Either you are executing it, refreshing it or ignoring it. Some just look like low-level plans, some are general expressions of aspiration, and some look close enough to a high-level route to somewhere, but are missing ‘little’ bits, like how the aim is to be achieved and with what. We come across many strategic approaches in our work across government, business and the not-for-profit sector, here are some observations from various discussions.  

Without betraying my roots, I would say the safest description of what a strategy should be is the balance between ‘ends, ways and means’. That is to say the aiming point, required action over time and resource. The tricky bit is that to form a strategy, you have to precook and combine some of all these ingredients as you go in order to progress; they are bound up with one another. There are tough and sometimes circular questions that need to be tackled. If the questions aren't tough enough, then there is probably an ambition knob somewhere that needs to be turned clockwise. 

There are common themes. The first stage is undoubtedly the analysis that goes into defining both the aim and the current distance from it. This requires the gathering of insight, perspective and then forming a taught and thoroughly defensible aspiration which importantly includes a time element. The goal is a meaningful statement, as short as it can be, with every active word meaning something. Clearly, it also needs to be coherent with purpose, vision and ethos. Fundamentally though, is the aim possible in terms of available action and resource? 

With a precise aim, it then becomes another exercise in gathering relevant information and turning it, through analysis, into factors for consideration. In turn, these factors can be turned into areas for further analysis, generate fundamental questions or define parameters for the strategy. I think it was originally US Marine Corps doctrine that first distinguished a useful distinction between ‘constraints’ and ‘restraints’ to differentiate between those problems that can be solved and those immovable things one has to accommodate or go around (for instance positive assumptions might be made about technology, but climate change may be a different matter). 

By this stage in the process, choices start to emerge. Choices are woven into compatible options which in turn are tested and risk assessed. Part of this is the stress-test of cultural and structural change. How much shock is acceptable, how much surgery can the body take? An essential part of this process is sequencing. What are the interrelationships between activities? What needs to be sequential and what might be concurrent? What does this mean for resource over time? 

Most are familiar with the saying ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and none of the above is worth doing unless ‘buy-in’ is generated from the start. It is people and their engagement which will deliver success or potential disaster. Bearing in mind strategy is almost always delivered as part of the daily business of delivery, the invoice for goodwill and support is massive. An acceptance of the need for the strategy is vital as is the maximum involvement, throughout the process, of those who will deliver the strategy. They need to be stakeholders and understand it in a way that means the subsequent delivery plans are equally supported and owned.  

There is a wider diversity point here too. The process requires innovative thinking and the ability to question how things have been done, generate different views and work together to develop new and effective solutions. Step one is to fill the room with different thinkers.