Emergent strategy and buy-in, in-house

Strategy is only ever as good as execution.

…But if the strategy process doesn’t enable the people executing the work to actually do good work, ya gotta rethink your process. I’ve been thinking about how to get better at building strategy with our team at Future Super so that we can let our strategy emerge from many perspectives, versus force a perspective on many people. Why: the work will be better if the strategy is formed with and by the people doing the work. It’s also more fun.

My desire has always been to build strategies that are useful, effective, executable. But, when you’re consulting, you’re often playing baton handoff and you just cross your fingers and hope the team doing the creative work on the other end will get the idea you were trying to convey. It’s the thing I found the most frustrating about consulting. Not giving the people who will be executing a strategy the time to build, play with, and rumble on a strategy (and then feed that input back into adjusting the strategy) is a major failing of the agency strategy process. Of course, if you have lots of time and money, can embed with a client, etc — it can work. It’s just a big risk.

What the agency strategy process looks like (from my exp): interview a bunch of stakeholders, jam on ideas with design and strategy, share back with client, get feedback on a strategy / framework, shape up the strategy, then deliver all the ideas (usually as a nice shiny deck). Then it’s execution time.

TRADITIONAL STRATEGY

  • Upfront consultation
  • Highly formalised process
  • Centralised — knowledge held (and sought) from a few experts
  • Planning for long time frames (in startup world 6 months is a long time)
  • Black box drafting process — big ‘ta-da’ at the end of strategy process
  • Creative ideation by external agency
  • Strategy reset annually (or a fixed term)

EMERGENT STRATEGY

  • Light consultation
  • Organic process
  • Shorter time frames
  • Decentralised — knowledge held (and sought) from many
  • “Just enough” framework drafting
  • Creative ideation by team
  • Strategy reset triggered by changing conditions

Conversely working in house I’ve found my inclination is to work the same way: interview stakeholders, construct a strategy, present for feedback and then hope the work suits the strategy. But that’s like having a whole ton of horsepower and only using one of the horses (I really need a better metaphor than this). I think the biggest difference is who’s doing the ideating on the strategy. I’m used to presenting pretty fully formed creative thought starters to clients as a way of helping them see how the strategy could work.

So, we need a different approach to building our strategy (and tweaking the strategy).

What this might become: Ideally, I’d love to get to a place where the whole team is sensing — what we’re hearing from customers, from the data, what the rest of the market is doing, and we’re constantly taking into consideration whether the strategy is serving us. Lighter strategy check ins, more often. Asking questions about what we’re learning as an input to the strategy, more often. Continuing to do lightweight interviews around the biz. Operationalising “sensing” so that we’re used to gently ‘tacking’ vs doing a 180.

Some of the inputs to the strategy that I’ve found helpful:

  • Using Slack to generate rapid input on what we’ve learned. In old agency world I would have overcooked this into a big interview process. Process wise, a quick thread in Slack is far better for our purposes.
  • Constant lightweight research by the team > mad heavy analysis by external researchers. Scanning the news for what’s going on. In old agency world this would be a MAD piece of trend spotting, competitive research etc. These days it’s about not overcooking it but keeping a finger on the pulse — reading the news, (spotting things Hesta attempting to get greener) and asking questions
  • Constant convos with members > heavy customer persona definitions. Again, this would be a big fat process (and big fat invoice) in agency world, but we’re talking to members in user interviews, getting feedback on messaging and tests we build on a near-weekly basis. This means we don’t usually get hit with too many surprises that cause a huge reset.
  • Brand interviews with people around the business > total strategy reset every year. Like the convos with members, doing this in a lightweight way, more often has been really helpful for finding out where other people in the business are hitting snags with using the things we’re building, or for hearing about things that we should be talking about to members.
  • Sharing a really light framework with no creative thoughtstarters BUT a lot of questions that we need to answer together, then putting it in the hands of the team to see if the strategy generates ideas (if it doesn’t, that’s probably a good sign you need to take another look at it — or that’s how it’s worked for me, anyways).
More asking questions — in our team, around the biz, in our strategy.
Using a draft strategy framework to test whether it generates ideas — versus using it as a way to dictate ideas.

What I’m committing to

In house, I’m finding that the old / deliberate way of doing strategy is not the most efficient or effective way to help a highly motivated, autonomous team. They don’t want to just execute a plan, they want to rumble and test and make it better. As we trial building a more emergent approach to our strategy, I want to be accountable to being facilitator of the strategy process, vs being the sole do-er of the strategy process. Rolling out a toolkit of things we can always go back to as a team to tweak our strategy — lightweight external research, member conversations, semi-regular future-casting sessions with exec teams, biweekly check-ins on what we’re learning as a team in relation to the strategy. I’m committing to — and want to be accountable for a more lightweight, organic, frequent process for our strategy — and sharing what’s working, and what’s not, along the way.

sydney via seattle. believer. growth @futuresuper. ex strategy @forthepeopleau. experimenting with writing.