Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Strategy Checklist, Part 1: A Recipe for Running a Top-Notch Strategy Process

Let’s talk about strategic planning.

More specifically, the end-to-end process of developing and executing a compelling corporate strategy. Strategy is a process - from the highly personal, nebulous stage of defining a company’s values and vision, to the long-term planning stage of setting goals and priorities, to the unglamorous and overlooked stage of execution, coordination and results-tracking. And like every process, it has proven formulas, best practices and predictable flows that can be harnessed to develop winning strategies and deliver strong results.

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series. Here, I introduce The Strategy Checklist framework. And in Part 2, I delve into each of its steps to showcase its practical application.

Strategy is often viewed as more of an artform, an unstructured, intuitive exercise, propelled by inspiration and brilliance – a bit like conceiving and producing a memorable and emotionally powerful TV commercial. And certainly, there are moments in the strategy continuum that this kind of creative originality is critically important.

But just like finance, operations or even marketing, strategy is a functional discipline with tools, frameworks, processes and metrics, which are not there to replace or suffocate the creativity, but to actually enable it, guide it, nurture it, and make sure it produces tangible, meaningful outcomes.

A great many companies do not do any kind of formal strategy work or systematic strategic planning – ‘strategy’ just happens for them, organically. Either it takes place in the head of their CEO or founder or it doesn’t take place at all. Imagine if finance or tax were done that way – no formal budget process, no standard bookkeeping principles, no formalized weekly or monthly reporting… Business would still get done – a great many small businesses don’t quite follow such elaborate finance processes.

But most companies of any size and repute, and their shareholders, have long decided that this kind of “organic” financial or tax management is unacceptable. So why do they settle for undisciplined “organic” strategy?

Many would say that there is no single method for developing a strategic vision and a strategic plan; that every company needs to discover its own way, particular to its own industry, its moment in time, and its unique circumstances.

While all of these are important inputs, my experience has taught me that, indeed, there is a fairly predictable and reliable recipe for designing and leading a high-quality strategy process. A process that not only delivers a differentiating purpose, a solid plan and a mechanism to execute successfully – but most importantly, links all these elements into a north star and a narrative that stakeholders, both internally and externally, can understand, connect with and rally around.

I call it the “The Strategy Checklist” (see Figure 1.).
Figure 1. The Strategy Checklist - an end-to-end process for developing and executing a compelling corporate strategy

I drew inspiration from “The Checklist Manifesto”, Atul Gawande’s bestseller, in which he describes how even the most unstructured activities and the most experienced and talented experts benefit greatly, and ultimately owe their success to, structured and disciplined procedures.

There are three distinct phases to The Strategy Checklist:
  1. Purpose – the vision for the future and the core values that define the company’s north star
  2. Planning – the near-term and long-term objectives and roadmap for achieving the vision
  3. Execution – the day-to-day processes, tools and metrics that deliver against the plan

If this process is applied well, at any point along The Strategy Checklist continuum, companies and their stakeholders can answer the all-important question ‘why’ by going back to the previous steps. For example: “Why are we prioritizing and running these initiatives?” … “Because they close the capability gaps and help us achieve our goals, our mission, and ultimately our vision.

To link high-level strategy with the concrete daily activities companies run, at any point, the question ‘how’ can be answered by going forward to the subsequent steps. For instance: “How will we achieve our vision and mission?” … “By hitting our strategic goals, as a result of executing our priority initiatives.

In Part 2 of this series, I will dive into The Strategy Checklist framework one step at a time, and demonstrate how it can be applied by strategy executives and business leaders to orchestrate an execute and end-to-end strategy planning process that unifies the company’s values and vision with its strategic plan and initiatives, and ensures the outcomes of its day-to-day activities advance its long-term objectives.

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