Strategy (or not)

Strategy image

A <something> process
Strategy is a tricky word – lots of baggage associated with it and not a lot of shared meaning in my view (not quite, but almost, a broken word in fact). This view makes it a bit – ahem – awkward and rather lazy that I have been roaming around saying that we are starting an organisational strategy process. This post is an attempt to clear that up a bit – at least for myself. Rather than strategy, more accurately I believe we are starting an organisational (and wider) conversation about what we are doing and how we are doing it.

This is a conversation that needs to encompass why, what and how questions – and also be mindful of how we make sure that we reflect the political commitments that will be need to be delivered following the elections in May. Its also a change conversation as I don’t want what we create to be words on a page – I want it to be an intent that we set and then work towards.

The diagram above is an attempt to show the different elements that we are working with – and also tries to show who holds each of them. I believe that a participatory culture is critical to bringing these elements together – but that is something that needs to go deeper than a one-off process.

But definitely a process
But to get started we need a process and in doing this we are looking less towards the business school type models of strategy development and more towards participatory processes of co-design and coproduction (there is a smidge of design thinking in there as well but see if you can spot it).

There is a delicacy in shaping any kind of participatory process which sets enough intent to give it authenticity, but in doing so creates something which is open to what that participation brings. I want to be clear around the intent I want to set for the organisation – and then fully commit to the process which may end up somewhere quite different. Easy to say – hard to do. As we work through the process I will try and write and share my views on the different issues we are debating – but carefully and mindfully of the positional power I have in the system. This is the place where my participatory practice rubs up against leadership practice and I will be exploring that this year as well.

The diagram below is my first sketch of the process – but my first job of the new year (or one in the first set of plates to be juggled) is to make sure that this is something that I am co-designing with the team internally rather going solo on it.

Strategy image
Strategy image

The intention is that we start by understanding our boundaries and then ignoring them while we have some big ‘what if’ conversations and do a bit of dreaming. We then come back and reconcile what we really want to do and prioritise around those boundaries. Finally we will adjust to reflect the political mandate from the May election – hopefully having been in conversation with the members all through this process so that isn’t a huge process.

But a perpetual process
That process, done right, will be part of changing how we work as a whole organisation. One of the things that attracted me to Adur and Worthing in the first place was the work that has been done to shift to new ways of working – I see this next phase as deepening that and bringing the whole organisation into the work.

This kind of conversation never starts with a blank piece of paper – you are always building and iterating on what you have already done and so we are organising the conversation around the 4 clusters of activity the represent what we do:

  • People: This is where we are leading our thrive and proactive work (more on this here) but is also the home of services like Revenue and Benefits as well as Wellbeing.
  • Place: This includes the work we are doing to shift to a more place based delivery model as a whole, but also includes services like planning which are deeply rooted in place
  • Planet: This is both our sustainability work but also services like waste
  • Organisation: This is our corporate centre where we have both services like legal, finance, HR and of course Digital but also our capabilities such as data and participation.

These clusters are made up of both missions (sometimes projects) and services. Where missions are more experimental and time bounded with a fast rate of change, services are perpetual and incremental with a slower rate of change. The join between to two is where the magic happens if what you are trying to do is mainstream work you are experimenting with – or where the conflict can be if the two are not respectful of the roles they play.

The potential tension between strategy and delivery is one we talk about a lot internally: strategy is often the aspiration of the organisation while delivery is the brass tacks of the actual work. Working well together you can imagine the strategy process laying the tracks and unblocking the route for delivery. If they don’t work well together well then; traincrash.

By bringing missions and services closer together like this we are hoping to close that strategy / delivery gap and as a result improve our overall ability to adapt and innovate at a sustainable pace.

Who do we need to be in order to match our aspirations?
In parallel with the strategy (name TDB) process we will be looking at our organisational design and making sure that we are set up to get deliver on what we want to achieve. In doing this I am keen to speak to other organisations who have been experimenting with organisational design like this and so if you are one then please get in touch.

I have to say I have some concerns around how we are going to create an affordable design and get the right balance in terms of skills / resilience etc – but I am going to surrender to the process and see where it takes us. We are going to name our boundaries – including financial ones – from the start and then ignore them until we get the second have of the process. I want us to be both wildly audacious at the same time as being focused and pragmatic – lets see how that goes as I am not sure there is a Myers Briggs type for that….

It’s an interesting process to navigate in a democratically led organisation and my aim is that we create as a participatory a process as is possible in order to manage some of the boundaries that this entails.

The language for all of this is in a state of flux – I tend to use and test language until we find the things that fit the organisation. Earlier in the process I experimented with the phrase ‘North Stars’ which just didn’t resonate, but using the language of missions has landed well as we’ll develop it. When I experiment with language like this I am also exploring culture and playing with the narrative of change – you learn a lot from testing a word and seeing what sticks as these phrases all come with baggage and expectations and its useful to see what surfaces when you use them.

So, its strategy Jim but not as you know it, and I know what is set out here is ambitious. BUT! We don’t have to do it all in one go – we are creating an iterative process which sits on top of a quarterly planning/prioritisation rhythm – so we can and will test and iterate until it hums for us.

One comment
  1. Carl

    January 11, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    Thank you for sharing your thinking openly like this, it’s inspiring to see emergent thoughts laid out for others to ponder, consider, challenge and develop with and alongside you.

    I resonate with a lot of what you have shared and within what you are sharing i’m learning that this points to leaders and organisations working constructively with “polarities”, your audacious and pragmatic is a good example of one. If you haven’t come across these before Jennifer Garvey Berger has a great intro video which is about 4 mins long.

    In Devon we have been doing some Org Design work linked to our new strategic plan, so there maybe some mutual learning / lessons in that. I am also seeing and experiencing the need for acknowledging the levels of maturity in trust, capability, leadership, design, development etc that are required to allow the theory to “flourish”, although the practical reality of each place, organisation, team and individual highlights the levels of complexity we all need to navigate as we move forward. The iterative process creates a foundation for the maturity in all areas to grow.

    I’m looking forward to reading more as you move forward


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