The questions of strategy

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Much of what is written about strategy focuses on the tools and techniques used in the process of developing strategy – SWOT and the myriad of other matrices that fill the pages of textbooks and articles – rather than why these are used. Such tools and techniques can be very useful – but it’s knowing why they could be useful, and when it is appropriate, that are the crucial questions that should come first.

When I reflect on my work helping organisations with their ‘strategy journeys’, one of the most important aspects is to ‘demystify’ strategic planning  – it can be seen as complex, highly technical, specialist and remote. Approaching this with a ‘first principles’ mindset, breaking it down into what is really at the heart of strategic planning, can help develop the confidence within an organisation to embark on and navigate its future strategy journeys. Considering strategy development as a series of questions is one fundamental element of this.

From a ‘first principles’ perspective, strategic planning is essentially about organisations answering four questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How will we get there?
  4. How do we make it happen?

Answering these questions in turn involves identifying, articulating and addressing other questions that will help people in the organisation to make sense of and understand where their organisation is heading and how they can help it achieve this. So for example, answering ‘Where are we now?’ could involve answering questions such as:

  • What is happening in our industry and markets?  (followed by ‘What might future changes look like?’)
  • What are our capabilities as an organisation? (And how might these affect our ability to succeed in the future?)
  • What is / should be the purpose of our organisation? (What do we need to do to achieve this?)

Framing the questions, understanding the context and articulating them with care, is an important skill in strategic planning:  questions define the challenge that people in the organisation need to work together to answer. This applies at any level, from the fundamental ‘existential’ questions of why the organisation exists, who it serves and how (and why this matters), to the detailed analysis of data to derive relevant insights about market segments and customers. Posing the right questions, mapping a path to answering them, and having the determination and confidence to seek robust and meaningful answers – this is at the core of developing organisational strategy.

Arguably, every step in developing a strategy can be defined as a question. (That might seem like a bold assertion – but try it!). The appropriate process to work out the answers follows from this – as does what tools and techniques could be used to help. Considering strategic planning in this way, it becomes less of a daunting and complex challenge and more about a logical way of working out answers to the high-level questions and developing a shared understanding and rational narrative across the organisation that will steer it towards its future.

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