Be more strategic – Eight insights (February 2022)

It was a full house as delegates from legal, accounting, property and consulting firms joined me for a PM Forum  digital session on “Being more strategic”. The backdrop of breaking news of Russian activity in Ukraine provided an ominous reminder that many strategy ideas originated in the military domain. Here’s a summary of Be more strategic – eight insights.

Is no strategy or the wrong strategy worse?

Some delegates felt frustrated that there was no clear strategic direction in their firm or team. Some saw this as an opportunity – to help facilitate and contribute to the strategy development process. Others felt that their culture worked against the idea of or ability to achieve a unifying strategy.

It was helpful to consider Mintzberg’s view that strategy could be a plan, ploy, pattern, position or perspective. So there might be a strategy even if it wasn’t apparent!

So the question arose – was a lack of strategy or a wrong strategy worse? Reviewing various definitions of strategy we agreed that the purpose of strategy was to enable organisations to fulfil their purpose and achieve their objectives. Organisations might still be able to achieve their aims without articulating their strategy but a wrong strategy implies that the aims were not achieved.

The same strategy can lead to different outcomes

A delegate asked if the same strategy could lead to different outcomes and the answer is of course. Each organisation is different – it has its own aims, history, management, culture and resources. And each organisation’s environment will be different – even if it is in the same market.

And whilst they may have the same or similar strategies, their ability to implement, execute or realise that strategy will vary. There are many professional service firms with similar strategies – and there are clearly those who are succeeding more than others.

Address strategy content, process and context dimensions

Strategy content is the combined decisions and choices that lead an organisation into the future. The WHAT of strategy.

Strategy process is the way in which strategies come about – the HOW, WHO and WHEN.

The strategy context is the circumstances under which both the strategy process and content is determined – the WHERE (the firm and its environment). We spent time considering internal and external strategic analyses to ensure that the internal aims, plans and resources were appropriate for the far and near external environment.

Strategy must be easily articulated

Strategy is about choice and focus. Every organisation always has plenty of options for its future direction – even if it appears to be “carry on as usual”.

No matter how detailed your analysis and convincing your strategic conclusions, to be remembered and embedded it needs to be easily articulated. So that it directs action by everyone every day.

So it must be distilled down to its essence of a few key words, phrases or actions.

People often talk about strategy being the “North Star” for an organisation – that which acts as a guiding light and to help steer all decisions and actions in the right direction. The Why, What and How of your organisation.

Strategy is an internal conversation

There was also a discussion about the importance of strategy being an internal conversation.

Whoever creates the strategy (usually the Board) must engage with and consult and invite the wider community to be part of the conversation. Strategy cannot be a secret. Everyone needs to know what needs to be achieved – and how and by when – so they can align themselves to the purpose and ensure that they contribute.

Too often, strategy is relegated to a review once a year (sometimes once every three or five years). But to be effective it needs to be front of mind all the time. The world is constantly changing and strategies must adapt. So strategy needs to constantly be part of the internal conversation.

Internal communication is vitally important.

Speak and act strategically

Even if you are in a relatively junior role, you can still speak and act strategically.

At the simplest level this means always asking about and referring to what needs to be achieved and the best way to do this.

We considered Nina Bowman’s 2016 Harvard Business Review article on “Four ways to improve your strategic thinking skills” 

  1. Know: Observe and seek trends
  2. Think: Ask tough questions
  3. Speak: Sound strategic
  4. Act: Make time for thinking and embracing conflict

We also considered her 2019 article on “How to demonstrate your strategic thinking skills”

  1. Bring a point of view to the table
  2. Package ideas into a vision
  3. Engage in forward-looking discussions
  4. Put new ideas into action
  5. Show that you can initiate innovation and bring strategic change

Create time for strategic thinking

Everyone recognised that with heavy workloads it was easy to become overwhelmed in reacting and responding to operational issues. Managing the tsunami of day-to-day work.

Both M&BD professionals and fee-earners can get so involved in this operational workload (“the urgent”) that there is no time to take a more strategic approach (“the important”).

So it was necessary to actively block out time so that you have the headspace to think beyond the current situation, collect data to trigger new thoughts and allow yourself to think about the future.

Build strategy on strong (data) foundations

Most delegates agreed that many suffered “the tale as old as time” and the dearth of reliable data on which to base good strategy.

We looked at a variety of strategic analysis tools that provide a framework for collecting internal and external data in a systematic way so that strategies are built on strong foundations based on reality rather than assumptions and fantasy.

Yet we recognised that “perfect data” was an illusion. We have to learn to work with imperfect data and gaps in our knowledge otherwise we suffer from “analysis paralysis”. But a balance must be achieved, as without adequate data the fate is “extinct by instinct” (making a fatal decision based on hasty judgment or a gut reaction).

Delegate aims

Delegates had a variety of reasons for joining the session:

  • Prepare for 2023 planning process
  • Refresher on strategy
  • Need to influence positive change
  • Build confidence in strategic discussions
  • Ensure campaigns are strategic
  • Become more proactive in strategy
  • Develop more strategic M&BD plans
  • See the “big picture”
  • Take a more strategic role
  • Help my fee-earners take a longer-term view
  • Learn about other sector/service line strategic approaches
  • How best to communicate strategic plans
  • Add more value to campaigns by thinking strategically

Delegate Takeaways

Delegates shared their key takeaways from the session

  • Visualise success
  • Marketing audit
  • Onion model of marketing audit – start outside from macro (PESTLE) then micro (competitors) then internal
  • Allow for emerging strategy – remain flexible and adaptable
  • Curiosity
  • Adopt a helicopter view
  • PR Smith’s SOSTAC® marketing strategy framework
  • Risk assessment
  • Work more closely with stakeholders
  • Encouraging stakeholders to take ownership
  • It doesn’t stay wrong for long
  • What would happen if…
  • Revise our strategy process
  • Allocate time regularly for strategic thinking
  • Take stakeholders on the strategy journey
  • A lack of data leads to denial

Poll Results

Throughout the session, delegates participated in a number of polls.

What is your sector?

  • 44% Legal
  • 38% Accountancy
  • 13% Consultancy
  • 6% Property/Engineering

How much experience do you have in strategy?

  • 44% A little
  • 50% Average
  • 6% A lot

Which topic is of most interest to you?

  • 61% Thinking strategically
  • 33% Marketing/BD strategy
  • 6% Understanding business strategy/strategic analysis

Where is your strategic focus?

  • 50% Sectors
  • 31% Department or Practice Group
  • 13% The firm overall
  • 6% Other (specific projects and campaigns)

Which area presents the biggest challenge to you?

  • 44% Strategy implementation
  • 31% Strategic analysis
  • 13% Strategic option development
  • 13% Strategic option selection

Have you completed a marketing audit for your firm/tea?

  • 63% No
  • 38% Yes

Which element of strategic analysis do you think you most need to improve?

  • 38% Sector issues and trends
  • 25% External analysis – competitors
  • 19% Internal analysis – past clients and work
  • 13% Internal analysis – strengths and weaknesses
  • 6% External analysis – far environment (PESTLE)

Which of the following is closest to describing your goals?

  • 13% Really well defined – there are objectives/KPIs for financial and other measures
  • 25% Well defined – revenue, reputation and relationships
  • 38% Partially defined – there are some goals and objectives
  • 25% Poor – there are some activity-based goals but not results focused

Which of these frameworks have you or do you use?

  • 47% Ansoff markets and services
  • 27% BCG portfolio analysis
  • 33% Porter’s generic strategies
  • 40% Porter’s five forces
  • 13% McDonald’s marketing plan
  • 33% PR Smith’s SOSTAC® or ROSIER

Which segmentation approaches are used at your firm?

  • 100% Market or industry sector
  • 60% Geography/region
  • 47% Size of business
  • 40% Job function
  • 20% Nature of relationship
  • 13% A mixture
  • 7% Personas

Links to previous “Be more strategic” sessions 

Take them on the strategy journey ( September 2021

Strategic thinking it’s a jungle out there ( February 2021

Be more strategic – Strategy in a post-Covid19 world ( July 2020

Improve your strategic thinking – Seven insights (2020) ( June 2020

Be more onion, time out from the tsunami and other strategy insights ( March 2019

Strategic thinking – Audits, assumptions and alignment ( March 2018

Strategy development insights – curiosity culture and change ( March 2017

Be more strategic – Strategy process ( November 2016

Being more strategic – Six insights ( March 2016

Be more strategic – creating behaviour change – Kim Tasso July 2015

Strategy workshop – skills, resources, involvement and tools ( October 2014