Strategy development insights

While many people think strategy development in professional service firms as akin to “herding cats”, I think it’s more like trying to pick up mercury. There are all those shiny spots of precious (noxious?) metal which break off and join up in a seemingly random manner. It’s hard to put your finger on mercury. At the March “Be more strategic” workshop in London (organised by Professional Marketing Forum and kindly hosted by BDO), there were some key strategy development insights from myself and the delegates. I’ve grouped the ideas around six themes: curiosity, challenge, creativity, co-creation, culture and change.

Be curious

The starting point for strategy development is analysis: Analysis of the internal environment and, more importantly, of the external environment.

You must be curious about the external environment – to consider things that are on the horizon and to reality-test your aims and strategy. Delegates recognised the value in tools such as PESTLE (an analysis framework looking at Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal and Environmental future trends to consider the impact on the markets, the clients and the firm).

Most definitions of strategy (e,g, Ohmae and Porter) involve understanding how to compete (i.e. sustainable competitive advantage) and you can’t do that unless you are curious about your competitors. And your potential competitors of the future.

Marketing folk can add value to the strategic process – and claim a seat at the strategy table – by obtaining information about the market and using it to frame strategic questions or highlight threats and opportunities. Sometimes this is a major part of our role if we focus on a particular market sector such as financial services, health or technology.

Many strategists consider strategy to be like the scientific process – To be curious about potential results. These strategists develop a hypothesis about the future and choose how to act to achieve their desired outcome.

Find the core challenge

Many of the strategy development models we explored require you to identify the core challenge. This is a powerful approach as it forces the firm (or team) to identify the one critical challenge that must be overcome in order to achieve success.

There is a danger that if you constantly look at the same issues at every strategy discussion, you will end up with the same solution – even knowing that it hasn’t worked so far. So perhaps you need to look to underlying assumptions or use data to identify the real core challenge. This approach is outlined in the book by Sola and Couturier

Strategy is ultimately about making choices. Most strategies fail because they try to address too many different surface or short term issues or meet the needs of too many different people or teams. Problem solving techniques may prompt you to redefine or reframe the problem – revealing a different (and sometimes surprising) core challenge.

Too often we see “data free strategy”. We can play a major role in researching and analysing the situation – as described in the “be curious” section above – to help us reveal the challenges and their underlying causes.

Be creative

Sometimes, using tools to find the core challenge will help you think about the aims and core challenges of the business in a different, more creative way.

Creative swiping is a term coined by Tom Peters. It means taking an idea from one organisation and giving it a little twist to apply it to your own business. We looked at the value of having different mental models – an understanding of the different ways of doing business in different industrial and commercial sectors – so that we can “swipe” ideas from one environment to see if they provide insight or creative solutions in another.

During the workshop we experimented with different creativity tools to help us find solutions to common strategic challenges in professional service firms. We also talked about how we are usually focused on convergent thinking (finding patterns and drawing conclusions) whereas divergent thinking will take us beyond our normal frame of reference and sometimes reveal more creative solutions.

There are more creative tools mentioned here: and and

We also saw how the tools of critical thinking can help us understand our unconscious bias and really test our assumptions. There are also many problem solving tools that can aid the creative process.

Co-create strategy

It isn’t really our job to create the strategy. Business and professional service marketers rarely have the in-depth knowledge of the markets and clients that the fee-earners do (especially if we are in a larger firm which serves many different markets). We often also lack detailed knowledge of the technical expertise and services delivered. It’s hard to have detailed product knowledge when our firms sometimes offer hundreds of different services.

And if we do try to create the strategy ourselves we then have the challenge of trying to persuade the fee-earners that it is a good strategy that they should implement. That old buy-in chestnut. Our job is to facilitate the strategy journey – presenting the strategic analysis, helping to tease out strategic aims and helping with the selection of strategic options.

Strategy development is all about the journey – rather than the destination (the strategic plan). Our job is to involve others in the journey – to initiate and facilitate the process. After all, a professional service firm is all about the people – so our strategy must provide a common goal and focus for the troops. We can earn our place at the strategy table by providing either the impetus (research and analysis that highlight the opportunities or problems) or guiding our partners and staff through a structured strategy development process.

It takes time to conduct strategic analyses and complete the strategy development process. And time is a rare and expensive commodity in professional service firms. We all need to devote more time to strategy thinking (see So you will need to convince people to invest time in strategic thinking. So show them the benefits. I like strategy models that emphasise value creation – strategy must create value for the business (increase in profit or shareholder value) by creating value for clients.

Another way to get people to collaborate is to encourage them to address strategy in sector groups rather than from their specialist product or service silos. Most people in professional service firms understand matrix marketing and this approach can help those from different parts of the business come together to understand the challenges in their sectors and formulate innovative solutions.

We should also be aware the strategy often leads to change (“Structure follows strategy”) so it is natural for people to be worried about strategies that are imposed on them. They are far more likely to understand and support the strategy if they are involved in and a contributor to the strategy development process.

Understand the culture

Most modern strategy models recognise the impact of “the invisible hand” of internal culture and how it can hinder both the strategy development process and implementation and execution. Professional service firms have a number of inherent aspects to their culture which can thwart strategic thinking. There’s often a focus on the short term (we need to get them to look to longer term horizons), a passion for detail (we need them to rise above the business and look down on it as if from a helicopter) and an aversion to risk (so work hard at analysing data and developing contingencies to deal with riskier scenarios).

Lawyers like to do law, accountants like to do accountancy and surveyors like to survey. Their priority is their clients. They will always have limited time for strategy. They may have limited appetite for strategy if they have not been trained in how to do it or are doubtful of the need for or value of strategy. The downside of being a fabulously successful firm with excellent profits is that there appears to be little point in developing a strategy and a fear that any change may “break the magic” that has generated past success.

The internal structure and reward systems will mean that the current strategy is embedded in the culture. If the new strategy requires new structures and new behaviours then we will have to consider how to change these things so that they are aligned.

At the core of the way to work with (rather than against) the culture is communication. A common challenge is finding a way to communicate the strategy in a succinct and meaningful way that doesn’t sound like what every other firm does and with no real connection to the heart (or culture) of the firm. I mentioned above the need to involve people in the strategy development journey. But then we need to maintain the momentum by ensuring that there is regular, open and two way communication about the strategy and progress on implementation.

Culture is a major feature when it comes to implementing the strategy as this often requires a carefully thought through and structured change management programme.

Manage the change process

As we considered what makes good and bad strategy (see we saw the link between leadership, strategy and implementation. There are many posts about change management, for example:

I recommended two books to help with change management. Both are based on psychology and organisational development. The simple, “beginners” choice is from Chip and Dan Heath and the complex, “advanced” choice is by Cameron and Green

I run a separate training course on “Driving change in professional services” – here are the highlights from one of these sessions: