Strategy at Any Scale - Where to get started?

The Core Challenge

Let’s start with common misconceptions about strategy: that it’s a big concept for big companies, it’s a leadership exercise only, it’s an expensive undertaking, it’s ‘high concept’ with no practical utility, it’s an excuse for executives to take ski retreats and write it off as a business expense.

Now let’s take the converse hypothesis and work through why strategy is your problem, no matter where you sit in your organization. If you need to do something specific in a competitive environment with limited time, budget, effort, or attention, you need a strategy to get you there.

Any time you have to accomplish something difficult with limited resources at hand, you need a strategy.

The Elements of Good Strategy

Good Strategy doesn't come in the form of a box full of tools. There are countless books on Strategy that are just a list of exercises with no guiding ethos. Other books lay out in detail how to write a Strategic Plan for business including every market, financial, and operational detail. These approaches are like handing over a box full of tools or a detailed operating manual and hoping you can figure out what to make.

Now, if a craftsman is going to build a cabinet they will need tools. But don’t mistake the tools for the process. A master craftsman can build a cabinet with a few simple tools whereas a novice can’t build a cabinet in a workshop equipped with every tool imaginable.

The best and most directly accessible model I have encountered comes from Richard Rumelt's book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. Rumelt breaks down any useful strategy into three components: a Diagnosis, Guiding Policy, and Coherent Action. If you can define

Good strategy almost always looks simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain. It does not pop out of some “strategic management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them. ~ Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, loc. 160

Scaling Strategy Up and Down

Personal - Whatever your place in your particular organization, there will be areas within your domain, areas adjacent to your domain, and areas far removed. Developing a coherent strategy in the areas in your direct control should always come first. First, you have to explain to yourself how you are diagnosing the problems you face, how you are making relevant decisions, and how your actions will affect these areas. If you can explain these things to yourself you can then explain them to others, accept their feedback, and adjust your thinking as needed.

Departmental - Ideally, those in positions above you will have some kind of strategy that can be communicated to you. Ideally those who work for or with you will be able to construct a strategy based on yours as needed. However, we know this will not always be the case and we have to prepare the domains within our control to accept incomplete ideas, confusing directives, and conflicting agendas. Having a strategy clearly defined in your department will help sort out what is actionable and what needs to be clarified and prioritized before action can be taken.

Organizational - If you lead or have influence within organizational leadership, the diagnoses, policies, and actions that make up your strategy need a type of singular clarity that everyone can understand, support, and translate to the capabilities of their own role in the structure. A ‘Vision Statement’ too general to act upon or measure has limited utility. A wish list of success metrics is hard to prioritize and apply limited resources to.

For a strategy to scale up and down it needs to translate from the organizational level, through each department, and down to the individual.

Where to get started?

Taking the first steps can be intimidating but the strategic planning process should always be iterative. The more we discover during planning, the more we realize we don't know. Starting with the most basic elements within your own domain and working outward is a good way to scale. If you need a primer, try completing the Scalable Strategy Checklist.

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