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No airs and graces - just a game plan

by Cara Bouwer
Without a clear strategy, companies lack direction, focus and internal alignment. This is why leaders allocate time, effort and resources to developing a strategic compass. But what happens when strategy becomes unwieldy and gets in its own way?

The solution is simple: refocus your efforts by reducing your strategy to a single page.

Back in 2011, author and venture capitalist Anthony Tjan wrote in the Harvard Business Review about an approach to strategy he’d been introduced to by his business partner Mats Lederhausen, a former managing director of McDonald’s Ventures and head of the fast-food giant’s global strategy. Tjan explained how Lederhausen used so-called strategy trees to distil strategy down to its grassroot purpose. Once the purpose was clear, this could be expanded to flesh out the value proposition, target market and goals. Ideally, everything should be summarised on a single page.

Tjan explained the process as follows, “It comes down to asking the ‘why, what, who and how’ of your business, arraying it across one page in a way that makes it extremely useful as an alignment tool amongst management or board members. This is hardly a novel concept, but it falls into the category of common sense that is not so commonly done.”

Why a single page?

Craig Gillham, managing director of Gauteng-based boutique management consulting firm Step Advisory, is a proponent of what his company calls “strategy on a page”. Gillham believes, “Given the massive complexity in the world today if an organisation can’t articulate its strategy in a page there is a high chance it is going to be lost in translation.”

This makes the process of distilling a complex strategy into a visual and simplistic one-page object - be it an A1 poster or an infographic printed on a mouse pad - as important as the end result. The visual representation helps to make the one-page roadmap relatable and memorable, but it must still retain the elements of the company’s strategy, he explains.

Creating a visual document can be challenging, but there is a scientific basis for this approach. Research from 3M Corporation tells us that visual messaging is processed 60 000 times quicker than text-based information. Our brains’ ability to decipher visual elements faster than writing was something that psychologist Albert Mehrabian wrote about extensively, explaining why a quick, visual roadmap is often a more effective way of communicating a complex strategy to a variety of stakeholders.

A considered, flexible process

The strategy on a page is really “just the endpoint and the output after quite an in-depth strategy, formulation and facilitation exercise”, explains Gillham, who notes that the starting point is when the executive heads come together to ask the right questions. “The core is the growth strategy of the business, the overarching purpose and the values that underpin the business.”

Tjan wrote that purpose is the root system of any good strategy, but Gillham explains that even purpose and values must be adaptable given the context in which a business operates. “You aren’t going to change your purpose every year, you’ll probably keep it for a good five to 10 years,” he explains, adding that businesses today are often disintermediated well before a decade has been reached. Similarly, in a complex and changing global environment, the overarching headline strategy might only remain valid for around three years.

Underpinning the headline strategy are the strategic themes. Once a company has determined its three to five strategic themes - such as evolving a customer base or expanding the geographic footprint - then the focus turns to determining the objectives under those themes.

“Often businesses don’t articulate their purpose, so we work with them to enable them to underpin their purpose as an organisation,” explains Gillham. “It might seem quite simplistic, and of course everyone is different, but by asking the right questions, companies learn to articulate their formula for success and what they are trying to achieve.” Then, putting this clarity down in writing is an act of commitment.

The challenge of context

Drawing an executive team together, particularly when they have divergent views on a subject, is an important part of the process, but increasingly Gillham notes that external market context is something business leaders are not considering sufficiently.

“Often businesses know what’s going on but they aren’t necessarily looking at external trends or factors influencing the business,” says Gillham. This can be as simple as spotting notable market disruptions or knowing what the three biggest competitors are doing. “Often the CEO and the leadership teams are so busy operating their business that they aren’t always looking and staying up to date with what their competitors are up to.” This insulated view can cause misalignment when it comes to priorities and strategic themes, which muddies the water when it comes to focus.

“Without punting for external facilitation, we do see the value in helping executive teams to prioritise strategic themes and identify misalignments,” says Gillham. “Companies do sometimes need someone to look over the fence, to look outside, to look to the broader world, and then take the time themselves to think and to get the right market context.”
Behind the scenes

Due to the level of introspection required when creating a strategy on a page, Gillham believes ownership of the process should ideally sit in the C-suite with a leader in the business. While the shepherd of the process doesn’t have to be the chief executive or chief operating officer, Gillham recommends that it should be an executive team member who is in the succession line.

Ultimately, the strategy needs to live on, so “companies with foresight involve some of the team members who are next in line”, says Gillham. “I think this approach stands the organisation in good stead to drive the continuity of the strategy into the future.”

Gillham also warns against allowing operational imperatives to swamp a strategy with detail and agendas, no matter how well intentioned. “The process we use in our workshops and co-creation sessions is quite collaborative, and sometimes I have to ask a CEO to please let me, as the external facilitator, hear from other team members and to keep the conversation at an appropriate strategic level,” Gillham says.

He adds that time to “see how things land and resonate” is also key. “Often a business will ask us to do a strategy on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, and we’ll say no, because you can’t do it over two consecutive days. The process needs time to settle and people need time to reflect.”

While the process of arriving at all the inputs is a collaborative co-creation, it doesn’t mean that prioritisation is always democratic. “When doing a prioritisation exercise with a full team during a facilitation workshop, it’s excellent to indicate direction, but you need time to reflect and determine if these are the big-ticket items,” says Gillham. “This is why we spend time with the CEO prior to finalising the strategy to genuinely see if those priorities are the five big-ticket items that will be the focus of the business over the next five years.” 

The secret sauce is in the execution

Once the co-creation process is complete and the message has been distilled to one page, then the focus shifts to executing on the strategy, and how best to track and measure its success.

This is the critical point and one where many companies fall down, believes Gillham. “The teams get sucked into the day-to-day operational stuff and when it comes to delivering on the strategy they’ve formulated, they often say they don’t have the capacity. But if you are not driving your objectives and breaking them down into quarterly sprints with well-articulated key results, then you are going to wake up at the end of the year and anything you’ve achieved will be by chance.” Not surprisingly, Step Advisory’s latest offering focuses on implementation and helping companies to achieve strategic traction.

This, Gillham admits, is a difficult ask for any business, even his own. However, he feels his company’s approach to execution has such merit that it is currently taking on a project “where we are taking a risk, not fee based, because we know that by changing habits and changing the way you execute and focus on your strategy that you are going to better results”.

Only by effectively measuring the impact of strategic execution on a business is it possible to counter author Daniel Prosser’s claim that 87% of business strategies fail due to poor implementation.

Ultimately, having a framework to follow is just one way to help companies to follow through on the process of making strategy more accessible and embedded. If he had one piece of advice beyond that, Gillham would suggest companies “simplify strategy, make it practical and make it implementable, because if you don’t get that right, you’re not going to get the results”.

After all, once you have a simple roadmap the key to success is to use it.

How Covid reshaped strategy

While Craig Gillham does not believe the now-waning Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way companies approach strategy - with the exception of needing to refresh strategy documents and approaches more frequently to deal with constant change - he does notice a shift in how artefacts such as one-page visual strategy posters are presented.

“In a hybrid working environment where there is less face-to-face interaction, sticking a poster up on the wall is not going to be effective,” he admits. There are, however, new ways to continue integrating a strategy on a page into a company’s daily communication approach.

“For instance, I’ve got MS Teams backgrounds with Step Advisory’s ‘245 strategy’ on a page. So, subliminally, we are reinforcing that message during team meetings. Another way is taking the strategy on a page and turning it into a short, three-minute explainer video or using interactive PDFs.”

These new ways to activate a strategy on a page using digital means are opening up new and innovative ways to play with this document and keep it alive and fresh.

How to use a one-page strategy

A “strategy on a page” helps to ensure a team is “singing from the same hymn sheet”, explains Step Advisory’s Craig Gillham.

“Rather than using a long PowerPoint presentation, this approach enables executive leaders to disseminate information throughout the business by narrowing it down, so there’s a consistent way in which it’s communicated, articulated and presented using one artefact,” he explains.

A well-structured strategy on a page should resonate with the entire team; whether a factory worker or a board member, he adds. It helps everyone in an organisation to understand where they fit into the bigger picture, which makes it extremely useful when onboarding new talent.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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