Weeknotes S07E03: How to write a strategy

Well, we made it to the end of the month. Well done us. Let’s have a cup of tea and talk about pragmatism.

A strategy – I’ve said this before – a strategy is four things tied together.

  1. It is a statement of belief about the current state of a system,
  2. an analysis of the changing environment the system exists within,
  3. a statement of intent about the future state you want the system to achieve,
  4. and the changes required to advance the system to that point given the preceding information.

If your current state is “single, living in Indianapolis”, and your environment is “a global lockdown due to a pandemic”, and your intended future state is “making out with someone cute under the Eiffel Tower” then your fourth part, your how, will be quite different to mine. I firmly believe that these four parts are literally all you need to write a first draft strategy document.

The next stage is to check whether your facts are correct. Are you really in Indianapolis, or a city in India? Are you really single? Is there really a global pandemic? (yes). Do you really want to be making out with someone under the Eiffel Tower? Do you want to be under the tower, or do you want to be making out?

Luckily, you can probably answer those questions by yourself. In work, I have to reach out to a whole contingent of people to check my understanding. That’s fine. The idea that you know enough to map out the next five years for your organisation is patently absurd. Do you know what the state of software as a service will be? Which of your services will be end-of-life? Whether there will even be a need for what you’re offering? Of course not. That’s why your strategy team is short-lived and drawn from every corner of your organisation. The best possible outcome for ivory-tower strategy is that it’s ignored. The worst is that it’s implemented.

Having confirmed that your facts are correct or, better, having had your facts corrected, you can plot a course. And this, I believe, should be done by a tiny group of people who actually understand how to play the game. And I feel quite alone in this view, and I’m frustrated by it, even as I understand the pragmatic need for it.

A strategy should have no more than three priorities – same as anything, really. And by shopping around your vital fourth part, by subjecting it to committee, I firmly believe you are not leading. Leading means calling the play. Somebody has to. I don’t believe, really, that we can collaboratively decide not to fund someone’s area, for example. I expect a leader to explain why they’ve done it and I expect the argument to be valid, even if it comes to (in my view) the wrong conclusion – but somebody who made that decision should be able to talk me through points 1-3 and show me why my area isn’t as good a use of resources as someone else’s.

I’ll stress here that this isn’t a passive aggressive dig. Instead, I’m trying to make the point that it is the least fun part of being a leader and delegating it to a committee is an abdication of one of your responsibilities. But the explanation – the buy-in – I feel like that should come after you’ve made the decision. But that also requires that the organisation has faith that you’re making the right call, and if you’ve never made these calls before – if you’re the new kid on the block – then I think you probably have to earn it. I don’t know how, and I bristle at trying to workshop it – at the back and forth between people with their own (often unspoken) agendas. That’s perhaps more of an autistic thing – trying to glean what ends people are hoping to achieve is very difficult for me.

But! There is a possibility that in the workshopping something else comes to light, some new correction of fundamental errors in the premises. Indianapolis has, it turns out, has acquired the Eiffel Tower in a complex international trade that will see baseball being played on the Champ de Mars. Or maybe one of the plays you were considering – flying on wings affixed with wax – turns out to be a bad idea, according to the grizzled fellow with a scar on his right shoulder. More information is always better, and being open will almost certainly make the thing better.

So what do I do? I genuinely don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve not been solely responsible for delivery of a strategy – a phrase which here means ‘Getting done the things you said you’d do’ – and I’m struggling to navigate the tension between involving as many people as possible to improve the thing, while avoiding disappointing the majority of people I’ll have to do.

Help please.

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