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Perghaps the most useful question you can ask about an organisation's strategy

Definitions of strategy: A persistent pattern of behaviour

When a client tells me “We don’t have a strategy”,  I don’t believe them.  I use a simple question to tease out what their strategy is, or has been.  A question works, evsn when I encounter an organisation who claims they don’t do strategy (Yes I have met a few).  It is amongst the most useful amongst all the definitions of strategy I have come across.

That question is simple. It is:

“What has been the persistent pattern of behaviour of the organisation over the past few years?”

Inevitably, it gets a response that describes the organisation’s direction of thought and activity.

Why define strategy as a persistent pattern of behaviour

This simple but powerful question gets to the heart of strategy.

  • It looks for strategy as persistency, rather than tactical, short-term activities.  Strategy is persistent, not irregular.
  • It asks what people are actually doing, their behaviours.  In contrast to what may be written down in strategy documents, annual reports and plans.
  • It invites exploration of strategy as a pattern over time.  How the strategy has built up and how that consistency of action and behaviour has developed.

All these are qualities that expose a real strategy in action, rather than one spoken about but not enacted.

The director claimed, “We don’t use the word strategy”

In one example I was talking to the Director of an organisation who described the business as running a franchise for cleaning properties damaged by incidents such as floods or other events.  As we were talking they talked mainly about their network of franchisees, who they  supported and equipped and even provided with work.  When we started to move onto strategy, I was told, “Ah, but we don’t do strategy.  The word is banned here”.

So I asked the strategy question, “What has been the organisations persistent pattern of behaviour over the past five years?”  The answer that came straight back was quite different.  “Get close to the insurance companies.”  In reality, of course they had a strategy.  That organisation’s strategy was to be close to, and serve, the insurance companies; the companies that provided the leads that fed the franchisees with work.  If they could keep the insurance company’s claim costs down they would save the insurance companies lots of money and continue to get work.  The franchisees were (just) a channel to achieve the deliver of the service cheaply and efficiently, without employing a tied workforce.  Their strategy was to simplify activities and reduce costs for the insurance companies.  We had got past their espoused strategy, to their strategy in action.

Strategy espoused, or strategy in action?

Surprisingly often there is a different between the strategy as spoken about (espoused) and the strategy in action.  The organisation says it is doing one thing, but persists in a pattern of behaviour and action that is different.  Why might this be?

  • It might be that the written strategy has not been communicated and socialised.
  • It could simply be that what is written down is not the real strategy.  Perhaps what is written down is there for another reason, or invented by consultants.
  • Perhaps the management team are not all leaving the room telling the same story.  As a result people are confused.
  • It might be about the credibility of the espoused strategy.  People don’t believe it.
  • This might be about a failure to bring about change effectively. The implementation of the espoused contained no attempt at culture change, and therefore did not make a difference.

Any or all of these could be true.

How can you use this definition of strategy?

Given the many definitions of strategy around, I find this is one of the most useful.  My clients also like its simplicity and continue to use it.  There are two very practical ways I use this question.

The first is to understand the past and the present.  It is simply to ask Directors and Managers, what has been the persistent pattern of behaviour.  To use this definition of strategy to expose any differences between what the strategy ‘should be’ and what the strategy as acted out actually is.  This in itself creates an awareness of any divergences or differences of emphasis.  It creates the potential to ask the next question.

The second benefit is that it allows us to ask about the future.  To ask, “How should that persistent pattern of behaviour change?”  This invites them to explore where that behaviour, of the organisation as a whole, needs to adapt and change.  Also to ask why they see a change is necessary.

A great advantage of this question is that it puts the emphasis on the behaviours that support the strategy, rather than the actions.  It opens the door to explore where the culture needs to change.  It attacks the misguided idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast (read why here).  It starts the discussion about which deeply embedded learnt behaviours need to be unlearned and how new behaviours could be learned.

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