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Many of us like to think we have a strategy, that the team we work for has a strategy, and that our company has clarity on strategy. But more often than not, the ‘strategy’ isn’t really a strategy at all.
‘Our strategy is to become the best at what we do’ isn’t a strategy. It’s a vision.
‘I am going to apply for 100 jobs to get that one job I want’ isn’t a strategy. It’s a todo list (albeit not a detailed one).
And strategies that get printed, and then get left on dusty shelves, might be great, but aren’t working. So actually those aren’t strategies either.
So what makes a great strategy? Well before understanding the components, it’s important to recognise the purpose of strategy. The idealised leader doesn’t need to manage anything or anyone, instead, their job is to develop strategies and inspire. Everything else can be decided by inspired colleagues because the strategy is clear. But this is the ideal, and basically unachievable… but hopefully, you get the point. Who wouldn’t love to manage less? Because leadership is fun, inspiring and exciting, whereas management can a bit of drag…!
As a leadership coach, helping women up-level their leadership, whether they are at the beginning of their leadership journey, running a small business or in the C-Suite of big tech, I’m yet to see anyone really spend enough time on quality strategy development. The more senior you are, the more time you should be spending on strategy. The more money you are responsible for, the more people you directly or indirectly manage, the more time you need to spend on strategy. You get the idea..! And all this is because great strategy provides everyone around you with clarity one what they should be doing, how decisions should be made, where to invest time, money and resources, and crucially what not to do.
Great strategies move you from a long to-do list, that maybe seems to be pushing towards some goals, into actual achievement.
Great strategies also don’t necessarily define what you do, but instead, define what you don’t do. They help you make decisions (and ideally help others make decisions without your input). They point out bad turns before they are made, give clarity and foresight, point towards the things you shouldn’t be focusing on right now, and instead redirect your energies to the right things.
What makes a strategy that really works?
Great strategies aren’t rocket science, but all too often they are overly complex when they don’t need to be. There are legitimate reasons for that, for example when you are building nested strategies where you need to merge the needs and strategies of individual business units that would naturally compete. These are called ‘programme’ or ‘corporation’ strategies in MBA speak. The more ‘business units’ you have – essentially individual goals with an aligned simple strategy – the more complex the resulting ‘corporate strategy’. This is really because you have to negotiate between competing and synergistic strategies. But even still, all strategies need to contain four key components:
- The opportunity. The change you want to make. This might be that you notice there is something that could be done better, but it is also how you bring value/differentiate from competitors (whether the competitor is a colleague as your strategy is a personal one going for a job, or a business competitor). Remember a business competitor might be within your organization if there are two products competing. Unless you are developing a corporate strategy your job is to develop the best strategy for the service/product/outcome you are providing, not to worry about another division’s strategy (unless you have been told to!).
- The goal – make this SMART – i.e. specific and timely. This also helps you understand the endpoint of your strategy – when you’ve achieved what you set out for.
- The required resources. This might be a glorified todo list, but it is more likely to be time, people, funding… whatever it is list it out. Understand the shortcuts that mean you can do something quicker but at more expense, such as buying in service, support, coaching, or the cost (usually time and therefore salaries/lower profits) of doing everything yourself.
- Sustainability – how will you make this goal sustainable, long-lasting and impactful. This part is missed all too often. So remember, a strategy isn’t just short term tactics, but something longer term. Making sure you can sustain the resources and reach your goals in a sensible timeframe will help you win long-term.
Whatever your reason for needing a strategy, these four components are always essential, whether it is a simple personal development goal or a big corporate strategy.
The reality of real-life and strategy
Remember that even the best-laid plans can sometimes go wrong. Real strategy emerges as you do it. Life doesn’t always line up with your plans and you might have a great plan but not be able to follow it. So remember your priorities and the reasons why your strategy was developed. Go back and look at resources and sustainability, maybe even adjust the timeframe on your SMART goal. But what shouldn’t change, are your principles and reasons for the original strategy emerging.
Remember a strategy enables the timely achievement of well-executed plans.
Figuring out what goes into defining your goal, how to execute and identifying the required resources takes time. This might be thinking about opportunities to stand out from the noise to talking to stakeholders and weighing up the needs of each stakeholder group appropriately. I’ll be covering more on strategy during the month of April, so check back for more strategy help over the coming weeks.
Did you enjoy this post? Want more? Head over to the Leading Women in Tech Facebook Group fo a special strategy training session at 3:15pm BST/10:15am ET on Thursday April 2nd, 2020.