How to be a Great Strategist

In my last post, I provided some very general guidelines on How to Be a Great Consultant. Given the feedback I’ve received by readers, I'm going to talk a bit about strategy and how the entire field of strategic planning and consulting is changing today. Before I get started, I’d like to point out that the quirky, loquacious looking fellow above is none other than Horatio Nelson, who in his time was a brilliant strategist for the British Royal Navy. If you want a good read on the personality of a strategist, you can check out this book about him. (I tend to cover a bit of territory when it comes to inspiration, and Nelson's life is just that.) Lastly, I've been in strategic consulting for over a decade to financial, healthcare, high-tech and consumer-facing industries. I absolutely love what I do. Finally, I'm truly grateful to the readers who indicated they want a bit deeper dive on this topic.

First, let's talk a little about what strategy is and is not.

Strategy, at its very core, is the way in which an organization maps its future. It is critical for the entire business ecosystem that strategists be integrally involved in their practice, and to understand not only the internal needs of the organization, but how the organization extends into the marketplace, and—last but not least importantly—themselves and their art.

If you browse the business bookshelves, you will find thousands of titles about strategy. Yet almost nothing has been written about the character or personality of a strategist, or why it is such a demanding role. For instance, George Steiner, considered by many to a key figure in the origins and development of strategic planning, does not bother to define strategy or the strategist except at the end of his famous and now mostly obsolete book, Strategic Planning. Somewhat typical for his time, Steiner posits strategy as defensive and anticipatory. In other words, Steiner positions the strategist as primarily reactive to one’s competitors and to the marketplace itself, and aggressive in its confrontation of those forces.

Steiner's traditional and conservative conception of strategy is based on the following:

  • Strategy is that which top management does that is of great importance to the organization.
  • Strategy refers to basic directional decisions, that is, to purposes and missions.
  • Strategy consists of the important actions necessary to realize these directions.
  • Strategy answers the question: What should the organization be doing?
  • Strategy answers the question: What are the ends we seek and how should we achieve them?

A few things are missing, in my opinion. You’ll notice that Steiner’s keywords are focused around direction, doing, action, and ends, and not on dimensionality, thinking, reason, deliberation and means. This is a fair point that I will leave the reader to ponder.

First, where does strategy best live? Does it belong to everyone and not just leadership?

This view might surprise you, but I don't think everyone at your company ought to be involved in strategic thinking. That's not meant to sound elitist. Rather, the idea is that certain people are very good at big thinking and others are great at details. In today’s collaborative workplaces, leaders are too often pressured to involve everyone in strategic thinking. This is sheer folly, and, to my mind, a sign of weakness and lack of vision on the art of leadership. The key ingredient is experience and maturity.

The best strategists have spent time in management, have worked campaigns, seen product launches, visited physical business sites and been around the world once or twice. They possess maturity and vision. The reason strategy needs to remain at the top of the organization is because, simply put, too many cooks spoil the broth. You do not need everyone's opinion at this level. My advice is to make sure that the right people are in strategic meetings so that the highest frequency thinkers are in the room. Don't feel the need to make strategic planning the business of everyone in your organization. Too many times, what starts as a well-intentioned brainstorm turns into a misguided free for all. You can see more about why you should limit these meetings to key personal here in this Harvard study.

Second, what about the overall economic environment, or the welfare of your employees? Do these things affect the overall vision of the strategist?

As is typical for old school management types, Steiner refers to the importance of directional decisions, but not to the internal/external factors that determine them. This failure to recognize the connection between internal problems and external causes is short-sighted in my view, and shows you just how cut off from real economics companies have been prior to about 2004. One of the only real-time economic benefits of social enterprise and its proliferation, in my view, is that of cultivating absolute transparency with the public.

Third, Steiner spends a lot of time talking about what an organization should be doing, and not about WHY the organization is doing what it’s doing.

Towards a Holistic View of Strategy

Being a great strategist means that you, (and sometimes you alone), have a unique way of seeing, thinking, and acting in business. It's not about influences, playing politics, firm-status, timeframes and protocols or antiquated frameworks. These things are actually a hindrance to great thinking. I think there is a shortage of big thinkers today because there is simply far too much pandering to the party-line, and a vast shortage of original management thinking.

The economy today is light-speed quick, and many companies are still working with frameworks that seem more appropriate to the analog economy of the past. (Steiner was writing in the 1970's.) I would grant that his WOTS UP model can be a powerful tool if done correctly, but the time frames Steiner suggests don't apply to the life cycle of high-tech start-up firms whose horizon for realizing an objective is often one-to-two years—three years if they are late-funding. Three years in start-up is an eternity. Nor are those parameters useful for some of the capital firms that need 30-60-90 day advances that are project-focused on outbound investment issues that they need to close on quickly. Strategists need to outpace the market, not lag or track with it.

To be a great strategist, you have to dive, and deeply. From interviews with stakeholders to casual talks with CEOs, this all goes in the pot, so to speak. Shaping the strategic vision for an organization is a wholly analytical process that starts by formulating a hybrid role for social, digital and business insights that can live and breathe in the organization. In other words, setting up a system, or "toolsets", that ensure seamless operation and delivery, access to the right data and information and presentation/dashboard formats that demonstrate industry-leading capability. Moreover, this has to be done in a way that allows people to hone and support that process indefinitely.

Delving into an analytical understanding of your business will go a long way towards ensuring cohesion between strategic planning, new business development and day-to-day operations.

Here are seven needs identified by McKinsey Strategy workshop participants for today’s strategist:

  • Techniques for identifying structural versus cyclical changes in the external environment
  • Techniques for spotting and harnessing cross-functional capabilities that a company has and may be able to leverage for competitive advantage
  • Tools for stimulating the creation of options, particularly where change is occurring rapidly and the scope for strategic action is shifting
  • Tools for stimulating the understanding of forces that are truly dynamic, with multiple second-, third-, and fourth-order effects
  • Proven tools for improving strategy processes, breaking inertia, and jolting conventional thinking
  • Techniques for generating and harnessing insights from big data about customers, competitors, and suppliers
  • Techniques for identifying and focusing the top team’s attention on new or poorly understood risks—before it is too late

Overall, great strategy rests with an individual willing to risk his or her own ideas and bring the following keys into action.

Authenticate

Make sure you can distinguish between the truth of a situation and the emotions surrounding it. Get hard, cold fact about performance, revenue and cost. Start from there. Use the obvious KPI's around you. No need for anything exotic.

Educate

Invest in ideas and learning. Not everyone can “do” strategy but everyone in your organization can be interested in forwarding the discovered vision and sharing it with customers. Query the organization for insights, but realize that much of it will be blatant flag-waving and white noise. Cut wheat from chaff.

Create

Create your own strategic culture that thrives on pushing the envelope and getting outside of the box. Delve into new strategic thinking by reading, interacting with other strategists and forcing yourself to write daily about ideas, positions, plans and outcomes.

Empower

Confidence is contagious. Mentor younger colleagues around your vision, but don't ask them to tell you who you are and what you should be doing. Rely on the maturity of your management team and not on "crowdsourcing" your brand. It may sound counter-intuitive, given the collaborative nature of business, but it's true. Trust your vision.

Delegate

Analog analysis is time-consuming and prone to human error. There is a reason why these efficiencies were developed, and why they continue to exist. Create dashboards that allow you to see progress with your initiatives. You can use data analysis richly if you apply it to Steiner's WOTS UP model. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Integrate

Data are always lonely. Data need friends. When isolated in buckets, they’re considered useless. Data are only relevant or useful when analyzed in relationship to other data. Most, if not all, data people are using will integrate workers with one another. This can produce excellent reports. Find out how this process works.

Narrate

Let strategy tell your company’s story. Keep it real. Don't show graphs just so that you can have pretty pictures in your presentation. Let the science of analysis tell the story, but do it in a way that makes sense to your client. Show, don't tell.

Remember: great strategy rests with an individual willing to risk on his or her own ideas.

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Branding-Demystified.

Branding-Demystified.

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