Strategic thinking – It’s a jungle out there

Posted on: February 23, 2021
Strategic thinking – It’s a jungle out there

On 17 February I had the pleasure of facilitating a sold-out workshop on “Being more strategic” for the PM Forum. There were delegates from large and small law firms, patent attorneys, accountants, actuaries and management consultants. This is a summary of the session which I promised I’d share with the delegates to add to their learning resources. Strategic thinking – It’s a jungle out there.

Strategic thinking – It’s a jungle out there!

One of the delegates mentioned that her firm used the analogy of landing in a jungle to explain marketing strategy – survey your surroundings, develop an escape plan, keep checking the environment as you implement your plan etc.

It reminded me of a 1987 book by Malcolm McDonald and Peter Morris called “The marketing plan – a pictorial guide for managers” which uses a cartoon strip to explain marketing principles. And they used the metaphor of the market being a jungle too. (There’s an updated version in 2004 of this marketing planning through pictures book)

Judging by some of the responses to the advanced preparation (see below) – it seems that sometimes marketing and business development professionals feel like they are lost in the jungle of planning within a partnership!

Recent strategic insights

At the start of the session, delegates were invited to observe on recent strategic developments they had noted. Comments included:

  • Developing their own firm’s strategy and/or three-year vision as we enter the planning cycle or look to plans for post-Covid
  • Moving from the short-term survival strategies for the Covid crisis to extend thinking into the longer term
  • Aligning and integrating the aims and strategies of different teams – particularly to overcome silos and encourage greater collaboration
  • Integrating marketing, business development and digital marketing strategies
  • Investigating new markets and sectors and new services as a result of digital transformation and the increase in e-commerce
  • Reviewing and renewing business models and organisational structures as a result of the introduction of new technology
  • Accommodating accelerated digital transformation from the Covid crisis and maintaining the appetite for business and digital transformation

Strategic thinking breakout insights

From the initial breakout session, a key area of interest was examining our own assumptions and biases. These exist for those in professional services (e.g. Us vs Them) as well as in marketing and business development (e.g. how we are perceived).

There are some assumptions we make – that growth is good, that the 5-6% growth we see in most professional markets will continue and increase and that there needs to be a plan (entrepreneurial, opportunistic and agile organisations don’t use annual or long term plans). Mintzberg commented that  strategy can be seen in a number of ways beyond planning.

The delegates saw the value of stories to explain what we do and how we do it in an engaging and entertaining way. There were references back to the metaphor of jungles here.

It was noted that we must flex and adapt how we describe strategy and sell the benefits of taking a strategic approach. There were also comments about addressing emotional and motivation SPARC objectives as well as rational SMART objectives.

There were also reflections on the need for systemic thinking. This means that marketing and BD professionals must see beyond their functional boundaries – see both material on T-shaped people  and on the need for cross-functional collaboration in an article by leading support recruiters Totum.

It was reassuring for delegates to know that the same challenges were faced by all of us.

Strategic process breakout insights

There were plenty of useful insights from the strategic process breakout session.

Strategic process insights

We need to keep learning (and unlearning) if we are to avoid getting stuck in old ways of thinking. By learning and drawing on different sectors and functions we can be more creative.

Our firms and processes must remain flexible to accommodate emergent strategies from partners who are at the coal face. They may detect weak signals and new opportunities early. We explored ways to monitor for and act on weak signals.

It helps if we speak to people before key meetings to get them to start considering the bigger picture and more strategic and long-term issues. Otherwise, there is a danger that people will remain focused on immediate short-term priorities.

There needs to be a balance between top down (for the firm overall) and bottom up (from individuals and teams) approaches. Ideally, it should be an iterative process.

There was recognition of the importance of considering why we are in business – this is a vital element of mission and vision development. (This video provides a short introduction to vision development). There is growing recognition that businesses need to consider their role in broader environmental and societal issues (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG)).

Frequently used strategy tools

Amongst the strategic analysis tools and planning frameworks suggested by delegates were:

  • Analysis
    • Audit and situational analysis
    • Gap analysis
    • Competitors analysis
    • White space analysis (see Blue Ocean strategy)
    • SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats)
  • Strategy process
    • Three stage model: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How will we get there?
    • FAA – Focus, Ability, Activity
    • Current state to future state and barriers
    • 5Ws – Why, Who, What, Where, When (and How)
    • Vision, Audit, Gap analysis, Conclusion, Recommendations
    • SOSTAC (I mentioned the book “SOSTAC(r) Guide To Your Perfect Digital Marketing Plan (2018) by Paul R Smith
    • Jungle crash – where we are, what resource we have, where we need to go, challenge

The RACE planning framework was common amongst digital marketing professionals:

  • Reach – Grow our audience using paid, owned and earned media (Buyer stage: Exploration)
  • Act – Prompt interaction, subscribers and leads (Buyer stage: Decision-making)
  • Convert – achieve sales online or offline (Buyer Stage: Purchase)
  • Engage – encourage repeat business (Buyer stage: Advocacy)

 Situation analysis (Environmental analysis – PESTLE)

The delegates also considered contemporary elements of a PESTLE analysis:

  • Technology
    • Digital transformation – impact on the work place and nature of work
    • Working from home impact on housing and transport/commuting
    • Digital skills and recruitment
  • Economic
    • Ongoing impact of Brexit particularly for firms with international operations and clients
    • Covid changes on business models (growth of virtual businesses and the impact on the property market)
    • Recession as we move out of lockdown – especially in those sectors severely hit during the crisis
    • Fundamental changes to employment patterns especially youth unemployment and increased importance of apprenticeships
    • Political
      • Potential taxation changes that may adversely impact business and individuals
      • New laws on data protection and privacy
      • New administration in the United States and impact on global trade
      • Changing regulatory framework on professions (e.g. audit restrictions)
  • Sociological
    • Impact of Covid on every aspect of home, family, social and work life
    • Diversity and inclusion initiatives

PESTLE analysis and employment factors 

Case study insights

Towards the end of the session separate teams tackled a case study scenario. The combined responses included:

  • Analysis
    • Map out sectors and services into a matrix and conduct value and proposition analyses
    • Profitability analysis of current and proposed markets and services
    • Stakeholder mapping and segment the internal audience (e.g. enthusiasts vs resistors)
    • Structured competitor analysis
    • Audit of presence in traditional and digital channels
    • SWOT to summarise all analysis and identify core challenges
  • Engagement
    • Internal communications so that everyone understands current and future positioning and proposition
    • Buddy up enthusiasts and resistors
    • Educate on strategy and marketing/BD using relevant, resonant stories
    • Engage everyone in the strategic process to ensure buy-in and motivation
  • Strategic options analysis
    • Ansoff and market share analysis
    • Focused research and analysis on proposed new markets
  • Strategic process
    • Tiered approach to new and potential and smaller markets
    • Introduce an innovation committee to prompt new ideas and asses/prioritise those identified
  • Strategic programmes
    • Strategic and operational management teams separated
    • Relationship mapping and nurturing programmes
    • Allocation of resources and responsibilities/accountability
    • Client listening to understand current perceptions of the firm and detect new and emerging needs

This recent article on marketing planning – including segmentation – might be helpful.

This article considers strategy in a post-Covid world.

Key takeaways

The concepts that delegates found most useful during the session included:

  • Strategic thinking Challenge your unconscious biases and assumptions (assumptions are explored further here). Make an effort to keep learning (and unlearning) and consider how to extend the range of mental models on which to draw. Set aside time for yourself and others to think strategically. We have a key role in obtaining and presenting data and analysis to prompt strategic thinking. The value of breadth as opposed to depth of knowledge is explored in this recent book on generalists.
  • Demonstrate strategic thinking We considered how we demonstrate that we are thinking strategically. Presenting information and asking insightful questions were some of the methods identified. Ensure that strategic thinking is incorporated into internal communications programmes. The ability to maintain a focus through wide-ranging discussions was a key skill.
  • Horizon scanning Maintain an awareness of weak signals and emergent opportunities and strategies. This means regularly tapping into partner/director insights from their daily conversations with clients and others in the market. There is also a need to have a process for assessing new ideas, opportunities and strategies
  • Strategic process There are different frameworks and tools available and we should avoid becoming “stuck” with one approach. Strategy is ultimately about making a choice from the available options and then focusing resources on the chosen route. Promote engagement and consultation throughout the process so that there is ownership (i.e. buy-in is built-in). Structure follows strategy so agree the strategy before considering how the organisation should be realigned. Keep the firm’s “big picture” strategy in mind when working on ALL projects
  • Goal setting Consider the reasons why you are in business and the overall values in addition to the SMART financial metrics. Use the firm’s overall goals as a way to align those within different teams.

Advance preparation insights

The majority of delegates completed some advanced preparation – which helped shape the focus of the three modules. It also provided fascinating insights into the broad nature of the work of the delegates who ranged from relatively junior assistants, through managers and even directors and partners.

Challenges for M&BD professionals

From the advanced preparation, delegates revealed that their main challenges in strategic thinking were:

  • Lack of an overall firm strategy
  • Lack of a unified approach to business strategy amongst stakeholders
  • The need to see the bigger picture
  • Getting others to think strategically (as opposed to operationally)
  • Having time to stop and think
  • Knowing where to start
  • Developing creative new ideas
  • Integrating digital marketing into the overall strategy
  • Moving firms from a focus on purely on financial and productivity measures
  • Changing the perception of M&BD from reactive service providers to strategic advisers
  • Too many ad-hoc tactical ideas
  • Short termism and “last minutitis”

We should consider ways to introduce more strategic thinking as part of the marketing and BD planning process. marketing planning process into a professional service firm | Kim Tasso

Range of projects being tackled by M&BD professionals

It was also interesting to see the range of projects being tackled by delegates.

  • Business planning – for the firm and departments
  • Marketing strategy
  • Growth project – portfolio
  • Breaking into new sectors
  • Improving the BD culture
  • Improving collaboration between departments/practice areas
  • Promoting the use of CRM by fee-earners
  • Optimising the use of social media platforms
  • Redesigning or improving the web site
  • Bid process management
  • Employee advocacy programme
  • Client experience mapping and management
  • Improving client referrals
  • Thought leadership project
  • Aligning pipeline reporting for the leadership team
  • Developing new multinational client relationships
  • Sponsorship programmes
  • Targeting exercises
  • Exploring regional opportunities
  • Converting physical events into the virtual space
  • Buy-in

Delegates should also check out the article from last week’s workshop on marketing and business development planning: Marketing and BD planning – Segmentation, Rock Stars and Engagement | Kim Tasso

Session poll results

Sector Legal 50%
Accountancy/Actuarial/Insolvency 38%
Consultancy 6%
Other 6%

 

How much experience do you have in strategy? None 6%
A little 56%
Average 25%
A lot 13%

 

Which module is of most interest? Thinking strategically 50%
Understanding business strategy and strategic analysis 19%
Marketing and Business Development Strategy 31%

 

Where is your strategic focus? The firm overall 36%
Sectors 14%
Practice Groups/Department/Service lines 36%
Individual fee-earners 9%
Other 5%

 

Where do you perceive your biggest challenge? Strategic analysis 24%
Strategic options 35%
Strategic choice 17%
Strategy implementation 24%

Recommended resources

Delegates received the slide deck and over 35 pages of supplementary reading as well as signposts to many other video and reading resources. These were recommended resources during the session.

Agencies

During the session, a number of specialist agencies were recommended:

Innovation Visual Leading Digital Marketing Agency in Surrey | Performance Driven Digital Agency (innovationvisual.com)

SQ Digital Digital Marketing Agency Lancashire | Award-Winning Agency (sqdigital.co.uk)

Stickyeyes Stickyeyes: Digital & Content Marketing Agency – Leeds & London SEO

SearchStar (now Adapt) Adapt | Digital Performance Marketing. Made Global. – Adapt (adaptworldwide.com) PPC

Educational

Free training from Openlearn  such as commercial awareness, collective leadership, employee engagement, entrepreneurial behaviour, environmental factors, financial markets context, strategy frameworks, business cultures, operations management, knowledge technology, creativity and innovation, marketing in the 21st century and  personal branding.

Other courses from FutureLearn  such as big data, analytics, digital marketing, CRM, SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, project management, leadership and organisational behaviour.

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