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What a strategy should look like

I became quite unhappy recently sitting in a meeting which was trying to produce a strategy.  It was the third such meeting.  The meetings had, to a greater or lesser extent, been quite well facilitated with the usual mixture of post-its, small group and plenary discussions.  But now we were trying to come up with a strategy.

My concern was that a strategy needed to be based on a proper analysis of the evidence, which could not be done in a meeting such as this, and I said so.  However that received no positive response or even discussion.  So we carried on and produced a list of actions.

It wasn’t a bad list – the people round the table were all experienced and knowledgeable, representing a good range of interests.  No doubt many, if not most of the actions would have made it into a strategy even if produced in the way I had wanted.  So what was my problem?

I think there were two.  The first was the one I raised, about the process.  We hadn’t looked at all the evidence available to us and we hadn’t brought it, and the points made in previous workshops, together in a systematic way.

The second problem, linked to the first, was that coming up with a series of actions, even if divided into short, medium and long term, is not a strategy.  We hadn’t come up with a set of arguments for a way forward at a general level, taking account of where we were, where we wanted to get to and what we might meet on the way.  I didn’t raise this in the meeting and it was only afterwards that I started asking myself, ‘well what does a strategy look like, then?’  I had a sense, in my own mind, but how would that translate into a document or diagram?  What were the essential features?

I went back to several books on the topic without much success.  One, a standard textbook I’d used in my MBA, described in immense detail the process for producing a strategy and then how you would implement it, but had no section at all for what it actually looked like.  Maybe there’s a good reason for that. Perhaps there is just too much inherent variety.  Or perhaps the product should reflect the process, so describing the process is enough.  That’s not to say examples don’t exist.  There were some in a few books and some sample strategy summaries in Monitor’s (very good) strategy development toolkit for providers.  But there seems, in my experience, to be a gap, not necessarily in people’s knowledge (I’m sure most of the people round that table could have given a workable definition of strategy) but in their practical application of the concept.

It seems to me that a strategy should include, in one form or another, the following things.  It should describe broadly where you are and where you’re trying to get to.  It should say something about the challenges and obstacles in the environment and what is likely to change over the period of the strategy.  It then needs some sort of analysis of the situation and a generation of options.  Finally it needs an argued decision for the best way forward.  That, it seems to me, is the essence of the strategy.

If you were a company it might be about which markets were declining or expanding and which to move into.  For health and wellbeing partnerships it might reflect on which areas have most potential for impact that are not fully exploited – such as a greater focus on prevention.  Or, how to meet the emerging gap in available resources, such as by investing in co-production and promoting peer support, or making better use of technology.  It might look at where there is currently too much investment of resources and where there is too little and propose, say, shifting the balance from acute to community services, with an indication of what is needed to make that happen.

Part of the analysis might try to identify where there is most scope for leverage, where a small action has a big result (e.g. working on a range of issues with a whole family has a much greater proportionate impact than dealing with individual’s specific issues).  It might also include some sort of systems map, showing how one factor might feed back on another, with reinforcing (or cancelling) causal loops (e.g. someone becomes more active, they feel better and start tackling their weight problem and as a result of that improve their social life and mental health.  Meanwhile the improvements to their life start rubbing off on friends and family, some of whom follow the same path, which then supports the person’s own changes).

Certainly, at some point there will be a greater level of detail which may be less grand plan and more pragmatic, but somewhere underneath it all there has to be some underlying rationale; something that says, ‘this is what we’re going to do differently, for these reasons, to reach this result’.

So what you get from this rather than just a list of actions is how you’re tackling underlying issues; how you’re using different types of approach; how the actions relate to each other; and how different sorts of actions impact on different sorts of outcome (one action may affect several outcomes and one outcome may be impacted on my several actions).

And that’s what I was not seeing in the ‘strategy’ that was a series of actions, or the ‘strategy’ that was just a set of ‘priorities’.

So was I right to be unhappy at that meeting?  Actually, no, not literally unhappy, as I was, but that’s a personal issue of how I react to such situations.  But yes, to be dissatisfied with the process and the result.  A strategy can be a powerful instrument, but it does need some work to get it right.  Yes, it’s difficult, but there’s a lot of support and guidance out there.  And having some idea of what it should look like is a good first step in producing one.

One thought on “What a strategy should look like”

  1. Pingback: Darkest before the dawn (how to explain what a strategy should look like) – Equwell Strategies
  2. Trackback: Darkest before the dawn (how to explain what a strategy should look like) – Equwell Strategies

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