Distillations in this newsletter: The case for strategy being limited to a handful of high-level goals; Don’t fix things. Write a new story; Strategy for environmental sustainability – what kind of ‘green’ are you?
A monthly concoction of insight, learning and things you might have missed for anyone who works on strategy, works with strategy or just loves strategy.
Would you rather listen to this newsletter as a podcast?
This month …
- The case for strategy being limited to a handful of high-level goals.
- Strategy snippets you might have missed: Don’t Fix Things. Write a New Story – from John Cutler; Strategy for environmental sustainability – what kind of ‘green’ are you?
If you enjoy reading this newsletter, don’t forget to forward it to friends or colleagues who might also find it of interest.
Was this forwarded to you? Sign-up
The case for strategy being limited to a handful of high-level goals
There is often a fascinating formative period early in strategy development when people talk about ‘what kind of strategy do we want to develop?’. I call this period formative because it can have a profound influence on both strategy development and the strategy that emerges from it. At such critical moments, we strategists we need to be well prepared to make the case for our preferred form of strategy.
I always argue that strategy ought to be limited to a handful of high-level goals. Firstly, because I believe it deeply and fervently, but secondly, it leads to lots of knock-on benefits, such as: strategy being easier to track and measure; strategy being more readily adopted; keeping strategy separate from strategic plans, which makes strategy more agile.
Here is how I’d make the case for strategy being limited to a handful of high-level goals.
- Many strategies are too long.
- Many strategies are too wordy.
- Many strategies are too indiscriminate.
A good strategy clarifies priorities, recognises and resolves difficult tensions and makes tough decisions. Any strategy that says we will ‘do everything’ is a non-strategy. It is an abdication of the responsibilities of the strategist.
A good strategy guides the on-going decision-making of everyone from senior leaders to front-line teams. It can only do so if the strategic goals are simple and few.
A good strategy is achievable by the organisation. This means doing new things in new ways to better equip us for the future. It may also mean abandoning established (and possibly cherished) ways of working. Attempting too many of these strategic changes at once is usually a recipe for failure.
So, strategy should always be limited to a handful of high-level goals.
But before we grab a big fat pen, write it in huge letters and stick it on everyone’s wall, we maybe need to be sure we’ve worked out, in some detail, what it means.
Goals are very simple – they are actions with purpose. At the heart of each goal is a verb-noun pair. What is it you are going to do (verb)? And what are you doing it to (noun)? So, ‘increase revenue’, ‘engage more customers’ or ‘reduce carbon footprint’ are all good ways to describe strategic goals.
As I described as a ‘strategy development error’ in my last newsletter, this is not a strategic goal:
“We will focus relentlessly on customer engagement, keen pricing and excellent customer service, in order to drive up customer acquisition, maintain our market-leading sales conversion and maximise customer retention.”
At best it is nine strategic goals – focus on engagement for acquisition, focus on engagement for sales, focus on engagement for retention, etc. At worst it isn’t strategic. Is says we need to focus relentlessly on … just about everything. Is it really the case that engagement, pricing and customer service are all equally likely to lead to the future we seek? Is one of them not a higher priority than the others? Has writing this goal in this way just avoided a critical strategic decision?
High-level goals are the most important goals to bring about the strategic future we, as an organisation, seek. They are the highest order changes by which we will respond to the most pressing challenges facing us as an organisation. Clearly these are not the only goals that will need to be accomplished to bring about strategic change. Each high-level goal will have sub-goals – the methods we will use to achieve that high-level goal (‘In order to achieve x, I will need to do y and z’). These, however, may not live in the strategy. If we were to separate strategy from strategic planning, these sub-goals are probably best built into a strategic plan and managed in an agile way.
Finally, why just a handful of high-level goals? Here are four key reasons:
- It makes the strategy sharper, more focused, more distinctive and more impactful. Concentrate all available means on a small number of desirable ends.
- It requires leadership to confront tensions, reconcile conflicts and make key long-term decisions. The handful-of-high-level-goals requirement acts as a forcing function to make leaders think strategically.
- It helps keep strategy front-of-mind across the organisation. This doesn’t usually happen. Data from Sull et al 2018 (Fig 1), showed that only 51% of the members of companies’ top teams could list their organisation’s top priorities, and this percentage gets much worse as we move towards front-line teams.
Figure 1. Leadership awareness of organisational priorities
- It helps separate strategy from strategic plan. Strategy is the handful of high-level goals that provide the constant North Star to guide decision-making across the organisation. A strategic plan defines the many sub-goals and enabling goals by which the hand-full of high-level goals will be brought about, in a delegated, targeted and agile way.
As far as strategy development is concerned, take more time to write less.
Strategy snippets you might have missed
Don’t Fix Things. Write a New Story – from John Cutler
“When two or more people with authority and influence (formal or otherwise) have competing narratives for what’s broken, why, and what to do about it, you can end up with a narrative stalemate.”
Introducing a positive narrative, such as strategy, “unites people despite their different narratives for what might be broken at that particular moment.” So, strategy is a way to story-tell your way out of narrative stalemate. Love it!
Strategy for environmental sustainability – what kind of ‘green’ are you?
With so much focus on environmental sustainability entering strategy discussions, I thought this was an interesting provocation, by Jack Nasjaq in 2022, to help organisations decide which variety of ‘green’ they are – are you more solarpunk or terrapunk (Fig 2)?
Figure 2. What kind of ‘green’ are you?
I do a lot of presentations to Boards and senior leadership teams on the case for strategy being limited to a handful of high-level goals. Get in touch if you’d like me to help you make the case in your own organisation (email@example.com).
If you enjoyed reading this newsletter, don’t forget to forward it to friends or colleagues who might also find it of interest.
Was this forwarded to you? Sign-up