I have a long abiding belief that while culture eats strategy they both get devoured by purpose.
This came back to the fore for me as we are doing some work as a leadership team to look at priorities and areas of focus and the question of strategy came up.
People have very different perceptions and beliefs around strategy and despite the fact I think it can just be that handy snack for culture, strategy is a useful tool for getting stuff done as long as you remember that its delivering the strategy and not just creating it thats important.
In the wrong hands there is a danger that a strategy becomes a plan written in an ivory tower and that plan kills your ability to adapt and innovate. The more adaptive you want or need to be the more you need your strategy to be less like a plan and more like a roadmap with lots of places to stop and check you are still heading in the right direction and to learn from the last thing you did.
When you are working in complexity you always need to be set up to adapt.
So I think what you are after is a vision or ‘North Star’ that tells you where you are trying to get to, and then a strategy that breaks this down into a series of missions or milestones which create a roadmap to get you there. Those missions need to be clear and crunchy enough for teams to go at them and to learn while doing them – or be so obvious that everyone leans into the idea that you just need to get this done to move forward.
And you may not have just one North Star. While private sector organisations have the luxury of concentrating on just one things public service is a constant balancing act between different priorities and between short and long term impacts. At best you will create a tight list of North Stars and have a good method for creating balance between them.
The other strand of a strategy needs to describe the capabilities and resources you need to deliver and progress your roadmap. A good strategy – and ambitious north stars – should bring describe the internal change thats needed for the new future to emerge. While you design your roadmap you need to look at the services and delivery work that will need to change to truly embed the change you are making. Its easy(er) to create a new structure or lay an new strategy on top of old structures but if you want to make it sustainable and authentic then you need to do the work to root out the strategies and behaviours its replacing or evolving otherwise you end up with organisational bloat; a hot mess of different priorities and a lack of focus for the teams actually doing the work. You can’t do this by separating strategy and delivery – you need to bring them closer together.
The archeology of an organisation can be read in different programmes and strategies that have been attempted over time, the different ‘isms’ that have been in vogue or the behaviours that have just evolved because they have not had strategic focus for a while. The art is to work out how to build and integrate the new with the old and to make sure that you are shedding work as well as adding it in.
The other art is to be ruthless about how you prioritise in order to make progress – thats a whole separate post.
In writing this I am aware of my own bias as a technologist and a researcher. Firstly because my mindset is very much orientated towards adaptive and iterative approaches but secondly because the idea of linking strategy and delivery is reflective of the way technology based organisations are moving; towards Devops and a seamless integration of new features with the fabric of delivery. I believe we need to consider all organisations to be technology organisations to a greater or lesser degree and I think the pace of change that this enables is reflective of the speed at which we need to adapt to a volatile and uncertain world.
This is hard stuff, and while I do believe purpose eats culture it finds culture to be hard to digest unless that culture is open and ready to adapt and is committed to delivering real change in the world. This is the super power of public sector organisations as while people will work hard for shareholder value they will do remarkable things if they know it’s serving their communities and as we have seen again and again with local government we are ready to adapt and change to do the best for our communities. What we need to do with strategy is to make the steps needed to get somewhere different visible and accessible – and then I have no doubt in the ambition and the determination of people to get there.
PS. I know I have used the image before but it seemed to still work!