Actually, instead of asking the question “How do I write an agile business strategy?’, what we really should be asking is “How can I make a business strategy agile?”. Let’s explore why.
Why do business strategies fail?
There are some amazing business strategists. They use brilliantly collected and curated information, to make fantastic plans for excellent companies. So, how come so many of them end up falling short of their promise, or failing altogether?
Well, a strategy needs to be kept fresh to be of use. Too many of them are left to go stale. Great and achievable aspirations get passed down as departmental objectives, then get transposed into rigid personal targets. Intent gets lost. Enthusiasm wanes. Progress becomes diffused.
Strategy isn’t an executable process. Neither is it just a three-year cycle, with stage gates for people to agonise over. It’s a guiding set of principles, information and educated bets. More than that, it’s a critical tool. The future of businesses, livelihoods and growth depend on them as they are often the only prediction of the future that achievable outcomes can be derived from.
In the same way that a map is just a piece of paper until it gets used to help you make decisions about a journey, making a strategy agile is as much about how you use it as it is about the quality of the information it presents..
So, how do we keep a strategy invigorated and responsive?
Learning from others
Think you’re the first person that needs to keep a strategy alive? Think again. The answers are already out there. Through the eyes of some proven strategists, let’s look at a few key phases, from gathering intelligence to acting on feedback.
Phase one – gathering information
“The key to leading effectively is knowing the things that make up your environment
and then helping to arrange them so that their power becomes available.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
Information is absolutely everything. The quality of the intelligence you gather is directly proportional to the quality of the decisions you are able to make. You must know the business and competitor environment inside out in order to be able to have a useful strategy to begin with.
The bedrock of strategy is finding the facts, then lining them up.
See our top tips on good tools to use for gathering environmental analysis for tech product business strategies here.
Phase two – challenge yourself
“…learn to think dialectically, because reality is constantly changing; what is
progressive at one point can turn into its opposite at a later point.”
Grace Lee Boggs, Organization Means Commitment.
Beware of the confirmation bias. If the information you have gathered is supporting the feelings, sentiments and opinions you had already, then it’s likely you’re nowhere near challenging yourself enough. There’s a fine line between a democrat and a dictator, it’s worth remembering.
Find out what an agile Business Analyst should really be doing to help challenge tech product leaders.
Phase three – challenge others
“What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was the seed”
Dinos Christianopoulos, a poem.
It stands to reason that, as a strategy is a key tool required for a leader to lead, then those around the leader will need to use it too. It is those around us that can bring the depth and colour to a business strategy. A pencil has no use when it’s not being used, it’s just an object. Many people can use a pencil to elicit the most creative ideas from nothing. Same goes with our teams. If we get them truly involved, then amazing things can happen. If we isolate them then they become an unused (and expensive!) resource of latent talent.
Check out how a Single Threaded Owner keeps teams focussed.
Phase four – planning is everything
“Before the battle is joined, plans are everything”
In a 1964 interview with Walter Cronkite on US TV, on being asked how he felt on the eve of Operation Overlord, the June 1944 plan to start the liberation of Europe, Eisenhower recanted a part of the speech he made to his officers: “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
In Stephen E. Ambrose’s book “D-Day”, which chronicles the build-up, execution and follow up of the operation, about a quarter of the book is simply about the plans, the preparations, the politics, the angst, the fear. The information, preparation and evaluation is vast, meticulous and insightful.
What we can learn from Eisenhower, clearly a phenomenal strategist, is that you don’t skip the planning. We should also remember that he didn’t execute the strategy all on his own. Knowing how to lead others was a crucial part of his strategist’s tool kit, as is providing the confidence to push ahead with it.
Read about the best approaches to tech product discovery here.
Phase five – operationalising the strategy into real actions
“Life has a way of forcing decisions on those who vacillate”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom.
It’s good to be proud of a strategy, but as the saying goes: “if you love it, let it go”. Operationalising the strategy into real actions is the story of the outcome over the target. The reality is that a plan becomes useless the moment “the first shot is fired” because humans are so complex that it is impossible to know what will happen next. Ever. We need to have clear outcomes, based on the information in the strategy and then train and trust our team-mates to do whatever it takes, within the constraints of the law and moral decency, to do the right thing from their perspective at any given time. Yes, we need to constantly create a trail of valuable assets, but we don’t need to see everything that our team does if they are all aligned to good outcomes, derived from a strong strategy.
Organising your thought in to tech product bets is a great way to focus on real actions.
Phase six – the After Action Review
“It’s better to be a learn it all than a know it all”
Satya Nadella, “Hit Refresh”
You’ve got to love learning. Thirst for it. You need to be humble too. The truth is, the world is so complex that no-one can understand it and that includes you. You have to seek it out, though, make learning happen. In Margaret J. Wheatley’s book “Who do we choose to be”, she talks of an ‘After Action Review’ – a “healthy and reliable” learning process used by the likes of US Federal agencies, the US army, and other organisations that deal with emergent situations.
The format is quite simple as it asks just four questions:
1. What just happened?
2. Why do you think it happened?
3. What can we learn from this?
4. How will we apply these learnings?
The crucial thing about this is that this isn’t a once-a-year job, it is run all the time, after any event. It is seen to be of crucial importance. Emphasis is on the fact that hierarchy doesn’t matter here as we all have something to learn.
Our agile factsheets provide lots of information on reviews and retrospectives.
Phase seven – respond to change.
“Our iceberg is melting”
In Kotter’s famous fable “Our iceberg is melting”, a power struggle breaks out between the penguins on a small iceberg. There are those that want to keep things the way they have always been (the majority) and those who see the critical need for change. All of Kotter’s 8 steps of change are still relevant, however for our purposes, number 7 “Don’t let up” is what we need here. Agility gets lost when people stop challenging, loose enthusiasm or just take their eye off the vision. Constraints kick in; meetings become long and laborious; leaders turn into managers and process becomes more important than people.
Our iceberg is always melting. The business environment is always changing. Technology evolves and customer expectation is always in flux.
To keep a strategy alive, with a built-in ability to respond to change, we need to drive a sense of urgency – and a flexible, agile strategy is the key to that.
A vision is vital, use it as a tool to influence and persuade.
Making it our own
A phrase comes to mind when strategy fails, “we build our own prisons”. Actively seeking to not make the strategy a constraint needs to be at the front and centre of our minds. There are lots of people to copy but be aware that it’s as easy to copy mistakes as well as successes.
Like any tool, the strategy needs to be tested. This can fit beautifully with the agile mindset of ‘inspect and adapt’. Don’t spend ages coming up with a strategy and years trying to make it work ‘to plan’, take a valuable piece try and it out, then fail fast or invest more, depending on if it works out or not.
Don’t constrain people with targets. Targets rapidly go stale and will drive bad behaviours. Start with a more general plan of attack if you need to and then hone it with a transparent and collaborative growth mind-set feedback loop. Involve a diverse range of people – not just analysts and consultants but engineers, customer service design – even the folk over at the security desk, they will certainly have a perspective and an opinion!
Blend customer insight in at every single step. Your customers know what they want and it’s your job to find that out. Remember what Peter Druker said, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer”. The lifeblood of the business strategy is the reality that customer insight brings. It’s the job of the strategist to seek it out.
Look at the difference between a vision, mission and programme.
Recap: bringing agility to the strategy
We started by asking “How can I make a business strategy agile?”. The answer is easy to say and hard to do.
• Keep it alive, by looking after its health
• Give it regular exercise by testing it out
• Feed it with nutritious customer insight
• Challenge it with rigorous feedback
• Don’t imprison it with your own constraints
• Bring it in to the sunlight, share it
• Show it to others so they can contribute to its welfare
• Be proud of it
If you look after your business strategy, it will look after you.
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