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Why I now read every strategy document differently.

This insight is part is a series of six insights into strategy, people and performance, derived from working with my clients in 2013.

Nowadays, as I read any strategy document there are two questions key I now carry in my head.  If I cannot read answers to them, then I don’t believe that the strategy has being developed properly.  The two questions that could completely change how you think about and describe your strategy.

You see many strategy documents talk about what is wrong and what they are going to do about it.

However, not many strategy documents explain what the situation, how the problem is being characterised and what is the diagnosis of the problem – they jump straight to solution.

Some I have come across even fail to describe the situation and the problem they will solve – they just state what they will do.

The three questions to test any strategy document

Try this simple test as you read a strategy document:

  1. What is the problem and how have they characterised it?
  2. Will the strategy proposed actually solve the underlying problem as they describe it and characterise it?
  3. Are the actions proposed consistent with the chosen approach (strategy).  Will they address the underlying issues and create change?

The important insight at the core of these three questions is that how you characterise a problem determines what sort of solutions you apply  Characterise it wrong and you will have the wrong solution.  Fail to agree what sort of problem it is and people will go off and solve different versions of the problem, using different strategies.  Characterisation matters.

An example of problem characterisation.

Imagine a problem with your supply chain.  If you think the supply chain problem is a technical issue, you change the software.  If you think it is a supplier issue, you talk to them or change supplier.  If you think it is an issue of order quality you look at how you predict orders or manage stock levels.  If you think it is a problem of how the contract was written, you talk to legal and procurement people about changing the contract.

These are quite different ‘characterisations” of the same broad problem: each of which would lead to quite a different strategy for solving it.

Get the problem characterisation wrong and the ‘solution’, the strategy to solve it, won’t work.  It will probably make it worse.

So many strategies say something like, “We will improve our supply chain, quality, relationships or technology” without some sense of what problems they solve or what benefits they provide.  This ‘diagnosis or framing approach makes that much clearer.  What these questions do is make explicit an often implicit part of the strategy decision making process.  By leaping strategy to a strategy to solve a problem, without making explicit that the problem is seen in one of a number of potential ways, the quality of thinking and discussion is undermined.

Part of a wider approach to strategic thinking and decision making

This is all a part of the feedback and learning embedded into the strategy process.  Are we being effective in delivering our strategy?  Is it possible our diagnosis of the problem was wrong in the first place and we chose the wrong strategy?  Both these are valid questions.  Both need to be continuously considered.

This is a part of our approach to applying the “Good strategy, Bad strategy” approach described by Richard Rumelt in his excellent book.    At Excitant we have adapted his three step approach into five steps, which includes introducing the need to learn from and refine your strategy as you progress.

So now when you read a strategy document, think:

1)    What is the problem and how have they characterised it?

2)    Will this strategy actually solve the underlying problem as described and characterised?

Of course if you would like teasing out your strategic thinking and turning it into a process of learning, then give us a call.