It happens to a lot of us.
You're in a meeting, discussing issues, contributing way more than your fair share -- and, all of the sudden, the person in charge looks at you and asks you to pull together a strategy document on the behalf of the team.
You're exhilarated and terrified all at once.
I've probably written several dozen strategy papers over the years. Some have been pretty good, others not so much. A few get acted upon, most simply are read and discussed. As with anything else you do repeatedly, sooner or later you figure out what works, and what doesn't.
Since I've got more than a few colleagues who are starting to be asked to do similar things, I thought I'd share how I approach this task.
What Is The Real Purpose?
Either way, your purpose is clear: deliver an effective communication that attempts to get people thinking about the problem -- and the potential solutions -- in the same way.
It's a homework assignment on behalf of the team: nothing more, and nothing less. You want to accomplish the task as effectively as possible, and in a minimum amount of time. It should reflect what's needed, and not your own agenda.
Part I -- Getting Smarter
Usually, I don't have any exceptional expertise in what I've been asked to do. That's OK, acknowledge it, and set about getting yourself up-to-speed. If there was a ready answer at hand, they wouldn't be asking you to come up with a strategy doc.
#1 -- Immerse Yourself
My first step is that I plunge headfirst into the topic at hand: reading as much as I can, and talking to people who have an informed perspective.
I'm not looking for "the answer" -- that comes later -- I'm just creating an inventory of all the different perspectives at play. The more, the merrier. If someone has an intelligent opinion, I want to hear it -- or read it. And there's an enormous amount of context on the internet if you know how to look for it.
One thing I've found: the more people you talk to, the more you start hearing the same sorts of things. That's good -- that means there's a pattern there that can be exploited.
As I'm doing this, I'm assembling early theories about what might be going on, and why. As I start to like these theories, I test them with a subset of people who've agreed to speak with me earlier -- and see how they react when I share my ideas.
Iterate and refine. Don't write anything down yet. I might spend a few weeks doing this if schedules allow.
#2 -- Stay Broad
In my line of work, technologists tend to think the answer is more technology. People working in large organizations tend to point to organizational issues. My friends who do M&A of course recommend that we buy this company or that company.
None of this is surprising. All are potential components of a strategy, but not the strategy itself.
Larger organizations can become inwardly focused, so I always invest in seeking out non-internal perspectives: customers, competitors, analysts -- whoever. There's an inherent observational bias that I try to overcome, otherwise the genetic pool is extremely limited.
At the same time, I try to keep a working inventory of all the potential assets at hand: internal efforts, existing capabilities, partnerships and alliances, and so on. Given that I've been around for a long time, I also look for past industry experiences that are reflective of the challenge at hand.
Be very clear -- at least in your own mind -- what problems you're trying to tackle in this round, and which ones need to be saved for another day. Otherwise, it all gets tangled up into an unsolvable mess.
A related issue is dealing with constraints: decisions that have already been made, or investments already in place.
Be aware of them, but don't let them drive your strategic thinking, otherwise you can end up with what I call a "tail wagging dog" situation. Figure out what would be best in a reasonably ideal world, and then work backwards.
#4 -- Be Pragmatic
If your thinking is leaning towards massive investments that take years to materialize, get a grip: that's not how companies usually think about strategy, unless the circumstances are quite unusual. You're in a particular position -- how do you leverage it to go forward?
Better to think in terms of a number of small, modest and tactical investments that lead to bigger ones as the ideas prove themselves out.
Nobody is going to bet the farm on your Powerpoint.
Part II -- Committing Ideas To Paper (or its digital equivalent)
Once again, getting your head wrapped around what you're actually doing is helpful. You are not creating a final product; you're creating the first in a number of drafts that will be written and inevitably discarded. The initial writing / creation process is to help *you* get your thoughts organized; it's not for external consumption.
#1 -- Establish Your Personas
Ideally, it all starts and ends with the customer or end user -- creating a deep and empathic view of the people who are impacted by the problem at hand, enumerated by role. Don't assume that everyone understands the problem, the people who have the problem, how they look at the world, etc.
But that's not enough here.
In addition to creating clear empathy around the people whose problems we're trying to solve, we also have to acknowledge that there are multiple internal stakeholders involved, and they are going to have strong opinions on what you're suggesting. A great strategy that gets shot down de facto by internal factions is a useless exercise.
Not that there's inevitably going to be discussion and conflict; but it's better to anticipate what's ahead.
#2 -- Use Simple Frameworks
Since communication is essentially storytelling, it's useful to use a handful of frameworks to make your thoughts more digestible to others.
One overall framework I frequently use is: situation, options, recommendation, implications.
Start with a brief recap of the current situation, including why this issue might be important. Generate 3-5 options that are reasonable to consider. Pick your favorite, and share your reasons why. And don't forget to call out the specific implications of your recommendation: investments required, risks involved, thorny challenges potentially created, etc.
Another framework I use is chronological: near-term, medium-term, long-term. Start with a handful of simple things that move the ball in the right direction. Follow that with a few key changes or investments that start to implement the strategy, but at minimal cost. And finish with the full-blown perspective with all the bells and whistles.
SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) are useful for painting landscapes, but they don't lead to a strategy per se. I've used customer-centric strategic frameworks (starting from the persona working backwards), but -- honestly said -- most internal stakeholders don't have the patience for this approach.
#3 -- Change Communication Modes
I'll write for a while, then re-do things as a PowerPoint, then try a whiteboard-style approach, then try communicating via conference calls, and go back to writing again.
Each time I shift communication modes, I'm forced to re-think how I'm sharing my thoughts. The result inevitably ends up being a far more compact and efficient discussion.
And, of course, things that are easier to communicate tend to be communicated more effectively :)
Of course, as I'm doing all of this, I'm reaching out to people to see how they react to the storyline: the setup, the conclusions, the recommendations, and so on. It's easier to read people's reactions face-to-face, but that's not always possible, is it?
#4 -- Keep It Simple
As you go through your immersion process, your brain may bulge with fascinating ideas and theories in a never-ending black hole of strategic analysis. I get often get trapped into thinking I have to share the wonderful world I've discovered.
That won't work.
As I'm going through my refinement process, I'm consciously ditching big parts of the discussion that aren't relevant and only serve to muddy the water.
Or putting them in an appendix if I must :)
#5 -- Don't Be Afraid To Be Original, Controversial, Etc.
So many times, I read through some sort of strategic analysis that seems to be nothing more than a consolidation of prevailing conventional wisdom. Coming up with a workable strategy doesn't mean simply taking an inventory of what everyone else thinks -- that's a survey! Or worse, there are some good ideas that are obviously being smothered just because they might be seen as politically incorrect.
Don't be shy. Trust me.
#6 -- Let It Marinate
Good wine takes time. So do good strategy documents.
Although schedules can be demanding, I find that it's extremely useful to put everything down for a while, go do something else, and then come back later and see what you've done.
At the outset, I end up re-working significant portions every time.
But after a few iterations, that stops, and I know I'm starting to have a quality deliverable.
Part III -- Socialization And Communication
A great strategy doc that isn't read, internalized and thoughtfully considered is a waste of time. And simply sending around a massive attachment won't get the engagement you're looking for. You've put all this work into it so far, so be prepared to see this to the end.
#1 -- Start At The Top
When you're ready, go see the person who asked you to pull the strategy together. If you can't get their undivided attention, come back later.
Be prepared to patiently explain everything you now fully comprehend to someone who hasn't done what you've just done.
The discussion may be non-linear (e.g. jumping around a lot), so be patient. You may need multiple meetings. Things may veer off in an unexpected direction. You may have to change your perspective on a couple of issues.
Or you may have completely missed the boat.
Either way, be prepared to go back and iterate again. Until your sponsor buys into your strategy -- analysis, recommendations, implications -- you haven't completed the mission, and can't proceed. About 100% of my strategy docs have to iterate here.
I'm very used to it.
#2 -- Map Out Your Communication Plan
It pays to think through who you're going to communicate with, in which sequence, for what reasons and using the right mechanism. The most important meetings are the 1x1s in small formats with key stakeholders: management, etc. Those are usually followed by small group formats -- either in person or via a webex -- hence the need for a compact powerpoint deck. If those go well, you broadcast more broadly using documents: my favorite is a Word document with embedded powerpoints to illustrate key points.
#3 -- Actively Solicit Feedback
When you're presenting your ideas, keep in mind your goal is to solicit feedback, and not defend your ideas in a cage match.
Listening, responding, acknowledging, engaging -- all are critical skills.
Almost always, I get a few things that I need to work back into the thinking and the deliverables. All part of the process.
This is not about you.
#4 -- When The Discussion Moves On, Sit Back And Enjoy
When you do this right, there's this point in the meeting where the discussion shifts from the "why" to the "how". People start discussing different ways that might be used to solve the problem you've framed.
Now -- inevitably -- you've got your own thoughts on this, but now is not a good time to share them. They're engaging, they're focusing, they're contributing -- and all of this is good. So be quiet and let them talk.
You can come back at the end and offer up your specific suggestions if you like.
Part IV -- Preparing For The Aftermath
Quite honestly, I never know what to expect after one of these strategy exercises.
The potential outcomes range from my work being sent to the circular file (e.g. the wastebasket) all the way to driving serious discussions way up the food chain. Very frequently, there's good engagement, but the time may not right to take specific actions.
I don't take any of this personally.
As long as I feel I've done a good job with what's been asked, I consider that a personal win.
And you should too.
Like this post? Why not subscribe via email?