The terms strategy, strategic and the opposite tactical are often used in technology projects and the wider business world without a clear and consistent understanding of what they mean. That’s not surprising, as the definitions are muddled, and not particularly illuminating. For example, a strategy (noun) might be described as a, ‘plan of action to achieve a long-term aim’ (OED), whereas a tactic is an, ‘an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.’ (ibid). Oops, you see the problem, in programming this sort of circular argument would be called recursion, which is not normally a good thing.
(Ed. I don’t think talking about tactics and analogies with sport and war help much here, other than to generate more unhelpful Jargon.)
In simple terms, strategy represents the aims and objectives of some endeavour, normally over a significant timeframe, typically months or years. It would be incorrect to refer to “this week’s strategy” – other than in a sarcastic way! Strategies provide a direction and a framework to meet medium- to long-term desires. Short-term actions – often as projects – will be planned and carried out (executed) to provide clear progress or incremental steps towards realising the strategic aims. Projects and Strategies are essentially transformations, taking the organisation from the current situation, or some intermediate point, to the desired end-state. The outcome represents some noticeable change to your business processes, IT systems, your staffing, your product portfolio, market position, capitalisation (value) etc.
Strategies should be linked to an organisation’s reason for existing, possibly enshrined as values, a vision, a mission statement or manifesto, and not every-day policies or protocols. Commercial and not-for-profit companies, government agencies and charities of all types have to justify expending resources (including time and money) in whatever market they operate in. A strategy will provide the rationale for doing the things you want to do, alongside the things you have to do, i.e. keeping the lights on.
There are many variations on this pyramid theme, but the key idea is to think about Strategy seriously, understand why you are doing it, and where it fits in your organisation’s ecosystem.
Strategies come in all shapes and sizes, and are by definition unique. Here are just a few possible generic examples:
- Launching a new product or product line,
- Merging-with or acquiring new interests (or de-merging/divesting your portfolio); possibly as part of a growth plan, consolidation, or entering new operating markets or regions,
- Implementing new or improved business and IT systems, although this would normally be a means-to-an-end, say, to cut costs, or enable new sales activity (as above),
- Improving processes or making other operational efficiencies. Again the bottom-line normally comes down to money; saving it, spending less of it, spending more of it, making more of it! This is not as cynical as it may sound. Think about your favourite charity and the decisions it has to make to survive and thrive doing the good works that you want it to do?
Because there will always be constraints, such as limited time, money and people, good Strategies may talk a long time to develop, they may have to survive competition with other favoured or even conflicting ideas, so they must be supported by the right stakeholders, and be rigorous and robust.
Here are a few challenges that you might face, outside of the rarefied atmosphere of the management away-day and the closed-door strategizing event (really!)
Strategy ‘scope creep’
The following are not strategic:
- Carrying normal day-to-day activities, Business as usual (BAU),
- Reacting to unplanned internal or external forces or events (I mean ‘tactical’ but am avoiding that word for the reasons stated above!) For example, responding to changing market conditions, government legislation or a natural disaster,
- Regular monitoring and maintenance of IT and business systems, sales and distribution channels, as mentioned, the things you need to do to meet regulations, preserve Customer data, and keep all the computers, telephones, software, plant and equipment working. Although upgrade, procurement and maintenance activities are often managed using Projects, they are not strategic.
What about the people?
Of course people are important, both as part of the strategic planning exercise, implementing the business transformation, and less obviously as Customers, beneficiaries or those who are disadvantaged by the new situation. Strategies, and change generally, can be painful and disruptive. By design they are changing the status quo, and if nothing is changing there is no strategy!
Help, our strategy is unclear, unformed and changeable!
The first two attributes are problems. If a strategy – in the sense of the future state – cannot be visualised or articulated (written down or somehow illustrated), then your organisation may suffer from a lack of direction and confusion. If there is no destination or roadmap how do know if you have reached where you wanted to be!
If a coherent strategy is still illusive with a lot of creativity, soul-searching and analysis, for example because of a number of viable options or external factors (variables that can’t be controlled), it is possible to set off in a particular direction and test the water. To continue with the nautical metaphor, by constantly tacking it is possible to maintain a course. The Agile approach advocates something like this, by regularly revisiting needs (requirements), assumptions and results, but there is still a notional direction of travel and a destination, if not a detailed plan to get there.
A more realistic proposition – if doing nothing is not an option – is to try something, maybe as a pilot, a feasibility study or market research and then revisit the strategy. A number of models are based on this try-test-refine approach.
“I do know my own mind,” protested Anne. “The trouble is, my mind changes and then I have to get acquainted with it all over again.”
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island
Change is inevitable and does not invalidate a Strategy. It is an important part of strategic planning to both set the organisation on the intended path and regularly check on progress. Revisiting goals, timescales and short-term priorities is a healthy and beneficial part of any significant programme of work. Big high-profile failures, of which there are many in technology and computer projects, are often caused by an inflexible, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, mentality.
It’s imperative to have a Strategy, but always be prepared to throw it away in favour of a tactical change of direction or withdrawal from the battlefield!
(Ed. this article is also available in the table of T elements)
(c) 2015 Antony Lawrence CBA Ltd.