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How strategy happens

Advances in Project Management Series

SERIES ARTICLE

David Booth

United Kingdom

 



An introductory tale

The pressure was on. A major new Division of a large international company had just been set up with great expectations, and as the new executive team got to work, the cry went up ‘we need a strategic plan!’.

External help was sought, and a parade of management consultancies presented their recommendations for how the new organisation should go about developing this within the tight timescale set out in the brief: there were detailed project plans specifying what had to be achieved by when, with week by week deliverables, critical deadlines, templates and outline document formats – all very logical and thorough, and appropriately ambitious, and a stack of impressively prepared proposal documents built up in the file.

But one consultant walked into the Boardroom with just a blank sheet of paper, sat down and asked ‘So what precisely do you want to achieve?’ Out of the ensuing discussion came the realisation that – despite the agreed formal brief – those in the room had widely differing views about the new organisation. More talking, and some listening.  Another blank piece of paper – this time flipchart-sized – and a marker pen. Discussion, clarification, different views. The 30 minutes ‘credentials and presentation’ slot became two hours of intense communication, at the end of which there was a simple sketched flipchart diagram mapping out how we were going to begin to address some of the issues. The organisation’s strategy journey had started, not as a result of some detailed project plan, but from people talking and – importantly – listening, to achieve a common understanding of the challenges and how they were going to work together to address them.

The traditional ‘textbook’ approach to strategic planning is a structured process of working methodically through stages of analysis, consideration of strategy options and consequent decisions, and then the equally crucial challenge of implementation, setting up a programme of strategic projects ranging in nature from IT to organisational change – a linear, logical sequence by which an organisation determines its direction and intended destination and marshals its resources to achieve this. Such formal strategic planning processes were adopted widely in the 1970s, with organisations following a series of neatly defined steps to produce a detailed ‘5 Year Plan’ which was then implemented through a structured project programme. But the world – industries, markets, businesses – has moved on since those days when relative stability meant that ambitions could be realised through sustained implementation projects delivered over extended periods; the increasing pace of change (a cliché perhaps, but its perceived veracity is sufficient to drive organisational attitudes) means that such a planned approach to developing and implementing strategies seems outmoded, a resource-intensive process whose determined outcomes are seldom delivered successfully before being overtaken by events.

The emphasis on rapid change has led to the adoption of a more dynamic approach to the development and implementation of strategy, with an emphasis on adaptability and organisational agility to react rapidly to changing circumstances or emerging opportunitiesi.

Starting points and journeys

What prompts an organisation to develop a strategic plan? Every organisation’s circumstances and rationale will be different. However, it might be helpful to consider two questions: a) what has prompted the decision to embark on that particular strategy journey, and b) what is determining the principal approach that is driving this?

To illustrate this, consider four scenarios:

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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.



About the Author


David Booth

United Kingdom

 

 

 

David Booth has over 20 years of business management experience working for companies such as United Biscuits, Grand Metropolitan and Smith & Nephew, in marketing and then HR and strategic development at the senior management level, followed by working for the past 16 years as an independent management consultant helping organisations with their ‘strategy journeys’: clients include a range of large and medium-sized organisations from international financial services companies to specialist NHS Foundation Trusts. These projects have involved working intensively with client organisations, guiding and complementing their internal knowledge and resources to help steer their strategic planning processes and develop effective strategic plans: there has been a strong emphasis on organisational learning, and clients have remarked on the continuing value and relevance of the work.

He is author of Strategy Journeys – a guide to effective strategic planning (Routledge, ©2017) which aims to demystify the concept of strategic planning by propounding a ‘first principles’ approach to help those leading organisations work out where to start and what approach to take to steer their own organisation’s ‘strategy journey’.