A strategy is an action plan with a rationale. People can use a strategy to coordinate their actions to achieve results that lead to benefits for themselves and others. You can use a strategy to make investment decisions, if you trust it. A strategy is only useful if you have confidence in it.
You can only have confidence in a strategy if it is clear and if everyone using the strategy agrees with it. The two biggest challenges when you are making strategy are clarity and consensus.
Clearly articulating a strategy is difficult. Concepts like vision, mission, goal and objective are often used to mean different things. Worse, the links between them are tenuous if they are mentioned at all. Strategies are often full of vague ideas like ‘be a good employer’ or ‘follow sustainable practices’.
The second big challenge for strategy is consensus. If the people who are affected by a strategy all agree on it, they will all act on implementing it. If they don’t agree on it, they will all take different actions. The worst case of low consensus around strategy is war.
In the organisations I work with, consensus about strategy is usually fairly high. The challenge is clarity. Even experienced consultants admit that they don’t know how to clearly articulate strategy. One of them told me (anonymously of course):
When I worked for That Reputable Firm, our usual approach was as follows. We hold a workshop, generate discussion, get some ideas on the wall and get people to dot vote on them. We take the outputs and munge them into a framework. Then we get our best suit, a partner and canapes and present the strategy. Everyone says “great, now we know what to do” and they feel much better. We know we are bluffing but we still get paid.
When there is high consensus but low clarity, the purpose of strategy is comfort in the face of the unknown.
When there is low consensus, an unclear strategy is often intentional. The purpose is in this case is camouflage. The original strategist Sun Tzu was all about the element of surprise. Of course, in a context of low consensus, once your strategy is clear then you have conflict.
If there is some consensus, you can build more by clarifying your strategy. If the best strategy you have got does not clearly lead to benefits for all the stakeholders, then you can improve it until you have one that does.
The more you can clearly articulate your strategy, and build consensus that your strategy works for everyone, the more you can have confidence in your strategy.
There is a third challenge for strategy of course: uncertainty. We are talking about the future here. A strategy is just a hypothesis, with or without evidence to support it. If your strategy is clearly articulated, you can use it to gather evidence to validate (or invalidate) your hypothesis.
If your strategy is clear, and links high level plans to specific actions, each person in your organisation can use it to guide their particular actions in implementing the strategy. You can also use it to measure progress with implementation. And you can use it to make ongoing explicit changes to your strategy as you learn and as the environment changes.
So, how do you clarify strategy? The method that I use to clarify strategies is PRUB. PRUB stands for Projects, Results, Uses and Benefits. Projects and Uses are actions. Results and Benefits are consequences. PRUB makes it easy to clearly map the linkages from each action to its consequences, and how those consequences are used in subsequent actions.