Strategy requires inspired creative management thinking, as we seek to find ways to respond to the ever-evolving market and internal forces to gain competitive advantages, to differentiate in markets, and to seek outsized returns. So why does your shiny new strategic plan often look just like the last one?
Outside the walls (real or virtual) of many corporate offices the only constant is change. However, for all too many organizations it’s often business as usual within their walls. This includes how their corporate and business unit strategies are developed. Annually like clockwork, executive teams go into strategic planning workshops with their strategy team, and/or they bring in the same management consulting firm off their preferred vendor list and go through what could be coined as “Strategy Theater.” There’s PowerPoints, some insights derived from external and internal data, and a few consultants waxing poetic. Effectively, it’s Strategy as Usual and the strategic planning for this year looks much like the prior years, with similar outcomes.
Avoiding Strategy Theater
The term “business strategy” has numerous slightly varying meanings and interpretations (Mintzberg, et. al., 2005). However, it can be generally understood as a combination of the goals for which a firm is striving and how it's seeking to get there (Porter, 1998). Yet, it’s the method by which business strategy is “developed” that needs to pivot. However, many executive, strategy, and consulting teams often immediately turn inwards when presented with this strategy development approach. Leading to fresh ideas and perspectives all too often being smothered, biases being introduced, protectionism of existing cash cows, and/or pet projects.
At Mesh Digital (“Mesh”) we like to take a different approach to strategy creations, by discovering the real wants, needs, and pain points of who matters most. Our client’s most important stakeholders; their members, customers, patients, colleagues, and partners. In other words, we help empower our clients to (re)discover their own creative confidence and here’s how we do that.
Pivoting to Discovery
The first step to shaking the strategy process up is to change the thinking and language from “develop” to “discover.” Instead of thinking that the answers are “in here” (with the executive or strategy teams), we like to think that the answers are “out there,” with the actual stakeholders (Kenny, 2022). No matter how attuned executives or their teams believe they are to the needs, wants, and pain points of their stakeholders, assumptions by proxy such as this likely don’t hit the mark.
At Mesh we do this by developing direct, first party Intelligence. That intelligence can be market intelligence informed by; horizon scanning, competitive analysis, and stakeholder research, where we directly interact with our client’s key stakeholders, getting our data and insights directly from their true source. We also routinely deploy external intelligence gathering where we Identify market forces, trends, and external points of views (POVs) on the market forces and environmental stressors influencing our clients in their markets. Lastly, we develop a baseline of landscape intelligence; assessing, inventorying, and identifying gaps to existing processes, procedures, technologies, tools, organizational, structures, etc. against best practices enriched by our collective experience and hard lessons learned as executives ourselves, bring the value of real-life experience in the same shoes as our clients’.
As an added benefit of this approach, this relatively simple change of looking outward can have profound positive effects on managers’ thinking and behavior. No longer do managers think that they must have all the answers. Nor do they think if they don’t, they’ll lose face. Instead, a new inquiring frame-of-mind takes over. The message is, “it’s okay to say, we don’t know.” Humility rather than hubris becomes a valued trait influencing to positive effect the organization’s culture and rewards systems on an ongoing basis.
While transitioning to a Discovery mindset is powerful, it’s just a starting point. Recognizing an organization’s shortcomings, informed by intelligence gathering, when performed in a healthy way in a safe environment is invaluable. It helps massively with generative strategy reinvention with purpose, that can be transformational.
Reinvention of corporate or business unit Purpose; establishing guiding principles, vision, mission, and strategic priorities can act as a directional rudder, or north star for where the organization needs to head. Designing the; research, experiences, journeys, capabilities, and technical architectures for how to get to that north star often goes hand in hand with the Purpose design to act as the guardrails by which our clients can actualize their reinvented strategies.
Opening the Aperture
At Mesh we find it can also be extremely valuable to not just break free of an internal echo chamber, but also to break outside of an industry one as well. All too often, clients and their leadership teams want to compare and benchmark themselves against their industry peers and rivals. Which certainly has value, however, many times there’s significant value to instead look outward, towards strategic leaders outside of one’s own industry to understand what those strategic leaders are doing that make them leaders, irrespective of their market or industries served.
To facilitate this, the team here at Mesh will routinely include strategic intelligence and data gathering beyond our client’s own markets and industries. Instead, directly interacting with executive thought leaders that can help inform how our clients can advance their strategies beyond just getting to benchmark. Instead informing what it will take to excel in execution and delivery of transformational strategies. This intelligence helps inform how to best invest in areas that truly allow for market differentiation or that lead to outsized returns and markedly improved stakeholder experiences.
Overcoming the “Snowflake Syndrome”
So why don’t more firms approach strategy design the way we’ve laid it out in this article if it produces better results? Strategy as usual for the vast majority of firms is too often overcome by; organizational inertia, culture, socio-cultural norms, generational thinking, and the want, maybe more appropriately stated, the need to be completely unique (we’re a snowflake).
In reality, many firms, even across industries, experience the same or similar challenges, opportunities, and impedances to approaching designing strategy differently. Candidly, none of these internal challenges are easy to overcome and take a well-honed approach of starting small, developing trust and political capital from successful changes, and some faith in your teams and partners to do the Not so Usual approach to drive preferred outcomes.
At Mesh, we’re poised to help our clients overcome these challenges. We’ve had the good fortune to have successfully driven strategies and transformational change both while on the client side of the table, as well as, on behalf of our management consulting clients across industries, markets, and geographies.
Whether designing transformational business strategies or leading the charge on digital products to accelerate growth, Mesh Digital, LLC is your partner for change. To unlock the potential of modern business for your firm fueled by Digital Strategies and Technologies, please feel free to reach out at [email protected] or Contact Us at any time to see how we can help your firm with developing Strategy that’s Not So Usual.
Kenny, G. (2022, August 19). Why Does Your “New” Strategy Look Just Like Your Old One? Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2022/08/why-does-your-new-strategy-look-just-like-your-old-one.
Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., & Lampel, J. (2005). Strategy safari: A guided tour through the wilds of strategic management. Simon & Schuster.
Porter, M. E. (1998). Competitive strategy: Techniques for analyzing industries and competitors: With a new introduction. Free Press.
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