Being more strategic – Six insights (Bias, Data, Complexity, Tolerance, Journey, Skills)

Posted on: March 5, 2016

Earlier this week, Norton Rose kindly hosted another presentation of the PM Forum’s “Being more strategic” training session where 18 delegates from solicitors, barristers, accountancy, actuarial and property firms attended.

As always, at the end I asked which topics resonated most with the delegates and these were the main insights:

1.Explore your internal mental models

The first session explores the conditions and skills needed to be a strategic thinker. There was significant interest in the need to challenge our own internal biases and assumptions (mental models). For example, we may have found a particular solution to be effective in the past and therefore try to apply it again without really checking it is appropriate. Sometimes we have to “unlearn”.

There was also some debate about the value of people coming from industries outside the professions where they will have been exposed to many other mental models that might have value. They have more mental models to draw on.

2. Earn your place at the strategy table

Some delegates were frustrated at being excluded from strategy discussions. Time spent understanding the market, clients and services was the first requirement so that we could see things from the partner’ and clients’ perspective. A key role for marketing is being the clients’ representative so we have to develop our knowledge of clients and their needs.

To avoid the creation of data-free strategies, another step up to the strategy table might include conducting research and analysis of market size and segmentation, market conditions, competitor offerings and emerging client needs to show your ability to think about broader strategic issues, develop key insights into markets and clients and identify opportunities and threats. And by alerting partners to challenges, you become part of the debate on how to tackle them.

3. Reduce complexity and identify core challenges

We experimented with different techniques to reduce complexity after we have conducted external and internal analyses. These included different perspectives, drawing, explaining to a child and from-to analyses. This enabled us to help identify the core challenge that the strategy should address.

Portfolio analysis and matrix marketing were tools that were found useful in trying to get a grip on the complex interplay between multiple markets and multiple services that were often found in professional services firms.

We all acknowledged the value of setting aside some time so that we could reflect on what we have done and achieved in the past and how we might tackle similar situations in the future differently. Sometimes reflection can help identify the core challenges (See, http://kimtasso1.wpengine.com/boost-training-effectiveness-learning-theory-nutshell/)

4. Tolerate a lack of firm-wide aims

Everyone naturally recognised the need to align marketing and business development strategies with those of the firm and/or particular departments, practice groups and teams. Yet some were perplexed that either their firm did not have clear, robust aims or they were not shared.

Whilst ideally the starting point for marketing strategy development is the firm’s aims (a top down approach) sometimes it is necessary to work with individuals and teams to develop their strategies and then consider how these might aggregate so you can identify common themes (a bottom up approach). The interactive nature of this process was examined.

We also talked about the Rihanna approach to strategy, where the firm’s over-riding aims and parameters are set out as umbrella guidelines within which all teams must develop their aims and strategies. WPP – the world’s largest marketing and advertising business – adopts this approach for its many different operating divisions and companies.

It was also noted that the lack of clear firm aims presented an opportunity to marketing and business development folk. Marketing strategy – with its focus on selecting markets and services and prices and promotion – is often fundamental to the business strategy and can therefore lead to education and evolution of the firm’s strategy.

5. Guide partners along the strategy journey and promote engagement

Several delegates asked about achieving buy-in, particularly when it came to ensuring that strategies were adopted and implemented. We spent some time discussing different buy-in strategies (see, for example, http://kimtasso1.wpengine.com/getting-it-past-the-partners-all-about-buy-in/ or http://kimtasso1.wpengine.com/10-tips-increase-buy-planning-persuade/).

Then we turned things on their head. If we involve the partners in the strategy development process from the outset, their engagement is built-in and they are more likely to feel committed to a strategy where they have seen the data, set the goals and chosen the options to achieve them.

Our role is to have a map of the strategic journey in our heads. We must then compile, collate and present the data to frame the issues and choices. Then we guide the partners, step by step, through the process. Strategy is a journey, not a series of jumps.

Strategy is dynamic. Partners and fee-earners are on the coal-face every day – talking to clients. They are therefore in an ideal position to pick up on weak signals, changes and opportunities. And while we want them to be opportunistic and entrepreneurial, we need to offer a process to assess their ideas and, where necessary, find a way to either incorporate them into the existing strategy or revise the strategy so that it is again aligned to the external reality. We also considered the theories on emergent strategy and strategy as a pattern of behaviour.

So we reframed our role as facilitating strategy rather than creating strategy. And recognised that taking a strategic approach may put both partners (and marketers) outside their comfort zone so we needed to be alert to personal and psychological needs.

6. Develop consulting and challenging skills

Everyone recognised the need to push back sometimes. Not least to free-up some time from providing a responsive service to a never-ending wave of requests for support.

So we touched on consulting skills – and, in particularly questioning, listening and scoping skills – as a toolbox to use in partner discussions. The difference between convergent and divergent thinking was explored – and we noted the tendency for people to prefer convergence which may lead to a premature closure of the consideration of other issues and options.

Two favourite challenging questions were “Why?” and “What next?”. “What would good look like?” was found useful in developing of goals and managing expectations.

The ability to demonstrate systemic thinking – how one change in the firm might impact on many systems, processes and behaviours across departments and functions – was an allied strategic thinking skill that should form part of the consulting and challenging toolbox.

We also spent some time exploring different approaches to implementation and execution from a change management perspective. There was recognition that whilst there was a rational understanding that there was a need for strategy, there was significant emotional impact in gaining involvement in the development and implementation process.

The next presentation of this course will be on Thursday 13th October. Details here http://www.pmforum.co.uk/training/

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