As described in the first article on the Strategic Mobilisation Canvas, strategy is the process of creating the right choices to achieve your business and corporate aspirations. In this article, we will explore an effective technique that I use to create and select the best options when making strategic decisions.
The technique I will share is a complementary approach to the ‘What If’ section in the Strategic Mobilisation Canvas. It effectively embodies the five principles underlying the canvas, with a particular highlight on principle number two – ‘Creating choices rather than a fixed plan‘. More information about the canvas can be seen at the previous post.
People often struggle to create tangible and valuable ideas during ideation activities. Participants tend to be held back by weak ideas and unclear, wishful thinking regarding their business goals and drivers. Therefore, to overcome this challenge during strategic sessions, I invited participants to create options using the text structure of ‘What If–So That’ (WIST) questions.
These two elements combine in the following structure:
What if [we perform a specific option] So that [a potential benefit or impact is consequently gained].
This structure derives from techniques like design thinking and user story writing. It is a simple and useful tool to encourage participants to think about new, valuable possibilities. Here are a few examples of using the WIST structure to devise strategic initiative options:
What if we establish strategic partnerships with smaller local companies so that we could reduce our response time and save operational costs in our services?
What if we strengthen our brand awareness and market positioning regarding B2B services so that we can leverage more business opportunities for value-added services?
What if we hired people from the wider LATAM area outside Brazil so that we increase our capability readiness and improve our cost of delivery?
What if we acquire a small company with proven experience in a particular sector so that we will accelerate our portfolio expansion and revenue source diversification?
This text structure encourages deeper conversations regarding perceptions of the value and complexity of each strategic idea. Additionally, it gives more substance to identifying effective strategic moves in a given theme, as demonstrated in Figure 1 below.
It is important to recognise that the options can be evaluated against a different set of scenarios to prioritise and select the best ideas to be implemented. Scenario planning will be covered in further detail in future blog posts.
Developing viable and impactful strategies is challenging and doesn’t happen overnight. A reasonable amount of effort is needed to identify signals, trends, opportunities, threats, and capabilities. Collecting these types of information is vital for preparing and enabling ideation exercises during strategic sessions. With these elements in place, the participants will be more adequately equipped to develop elaborate strategies using the WIST structure.
The WIST structure helps to overcome the difficulties in creating tangible and valuable ideas. It allows the user to navigate obstacles and maximise their existing strengths to develop winning strategies. Additionally, they will have more information to decide on the best options for a given scenario. I hope you find this approach useful as well. Please feel free to use the WIST structure yourself to create more effective strategic moves in your own contexts and business themes.
My previous post regarding strategic mobilisation triggered people’s curiosity about the tool and the principles I introduced in that text. I have received many messages asking for more details and information. Inspired by these positive comments and requests, I explore further in this blog post the implications of strategising in dynamic and mutable scenarios.
The ability to navigate in fast-changing contexts is an essential skill for developing successful strategies, and many clever people have studied how to manage complex, volatile and uncertain scenarios. Thus, there is rich research, experiment and theorising occurring in these fields. I don’t aim to make this blog any kind of scientific article; my intention is to share some ‘lessons from the trenches’ about navigating mutable business situations.
First things first: What does mutable mean in the context of corporate business strategy?
Avoiding the temptation to use fancy scientific language, let’s stick to a simple definition for this key concept. According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘Mutability’ isthe ability to change or of being likely to change. To be honest, we don’t need to theorise much further than that to understand what we must do to navigate this type of scenario.
Based on this definition, I am experiencing several different mutable situations in my own daily life as an executive. Here are some examples of high mutable situations that I face regularly:
Changes in client structures and roles
Unwanted staff turnover
Impact of corporate decisions on employees’ intrinsic motivators
Client’s individual needs and requirements
Stock moves in global markets
Importantly, being mutable doesn’t mean being out of control or chaotic. It’s a simple acknowledgment that one can’t always predict when and how something may change. There are things in business less mutable, for sure. I will tackle these particular scenarios in future blogs; right now I’m focusing on how to deal with mutable things in this text.
Keep options open – and your organisational senses
Strategising is about making choices. In business, strategy is a continual process of formulating options and choosing the right one for a given situation.
We can consider different heuristics, or the simple rules people use for facilitating the decision process, when making choices. However, sometimes our choices are not right, even when we have all the information we need, or when we have had previous experience in similar circumstances. The likelihood of being wrong is high when we operate in dynamic situations, as the parts are always moving and creating non-linear connections.
The illusion of being right can harm good strategy development. Awareness of the possibility of being wrong is the paradox of succeeding in business (I learned that lesson in the worst possible way many years ago). That is why companies must have a management system capable of sensing when a chosen option is not the right one, to respond quickly to formulate or adapt other options in a particular situation.
Shortening the feedback cycle about business performance is a key ingredient to deal with mutable and dynamic scenarios. It’s not about adopting any particular framework or method; it is about the attitude of continually planning, learning and adjusting the route when necessary.
Merging strategy and execution
The separation between strategy and execution is probably where the biggest misunderstanding in the management field occurs. I’m not saying companies shouldn’t have hierarchical structures; I’m acknowledging that there is no difference between strategy and execution from a practical point of view.
Strategy continues to happen throughout execution. Strategy is not just about creating plans and stratagems. It is about making the best decisions possible based on known and unknown events. In this case, there are moves we can prepare for in advance, and there are other moves we will only discover when a new circumstance arises. For this reason, strategy should be a continual and distributed process in companies, and it is the best instrument for navigating dynamic and mutable contexts.
Here are some tips for merging strategy and execution, humbly offered:
Adopt short cycles for creating and reviewing strategic moves
Talk about strategy every day, not just once a year
Think about strategy with everyone in your environment, not only with the leaders
Democratise relevant data and information to empower people to evolve the strategic drivers
Don’t make the plan the protagonist while you are still creating, reviewing and adapting the strategy
Keep the strategic process simple and accessible – you don’t need a PhD from a prestigious university to develop winning strategies.
Now it’s your turn
I’ll share more of my experiences about strategy and management systems in forthcoming texts. In the meantime, I invite you to reflect deeply on whether you are developing suitable strategies for navigating mutable environments by acknowledging that you can’t predict and control all the outcome of your strategic moves. For me, this is the most valuable takeout message.
Some relevant references:
Lafley, A.G.; Martin, Roger; Martin, Roger L.. Playing to Win . Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.
Lustig, Patricia. Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future . Triarchy
Clarity, cohesion and responsiveness are essential for survival in the contemporary business landscape. Developing these capabilities isn’t easy and companies need ways to enable strategies for innovating and evolving continuously. Multi-actor collaboration and short feedback cycles are enablers for continuous strategy development. I have been combining these enablers in a tool named Strategic Mobilisation Canvas. Increasing engagement and alignment are recurring benefits I have observed when using this canvas. My greatest aim with this text is to share a pattern of activities and concepts that worked well when facilitating and leading collaborative strategy sessions. I believe these patterns will be helpful for people on a similar journey.
A typical challenge
I often use this approach when companies seek to engage people and align strategic themes. Creating a shared understanding of investing organisational energy is one of the key ingredients for winning strategies. It is about effectively mobilising individuals, teams and communities for developing and deploying a contextualised strategy for corporate and business aspirations.
I apply this canvas to facilitate strategic conversations among executives, board members, directors and leaders. Sometimes, these people don’t need to create the entire strategy thinking from scratch. They only need some help to understand their intent, obstacles, strengths and choices to ignite effective strategic moves towards relevant outcomes. That is the focus of this tool.
The canvas has evolved as I have tried different formats, media and sections. Despite the tool’s form, some underlying principles emerged as patterns in sessions I have facilitated over the years. For this reason, let’s explore some of these principles and dig into the canvas details.
Principle 1: Collective intelligence is the best antidote for tackling complex problems— Connecting different perspectives and experiences is the most effective way of better comprehending the full spectrum of challenges and opportunities in a highly-dynamic context. That is why the strategy process shouldn’t be done in isolation by only a few people at the very top of the company. The strategy process should be an open conversation and must engage a diverse set of people from multiple areas and levels of the company.
Principle 2: Creating choices rather than a fixed plan — Strategy is a broad subject with multiple views, theories and techniques. Many leaders and executives wrongly associate the preparation of a plan with the proper process of strategising. In simple words, a plan, as a document, describes the step sequence to achieve something. However, strategy is much more than this. According to professor and author Roger Martin, “strategy is a set of interrelated and powerful choices that positions the organisation to win.” This concept acknowledges that there are elements we can’t control in business and an iterative process is required to validate and adapt the options as it evolves. For this reason, instead of relying only on a fixed action plan, organisations should be able to continuously iterate and adjust the strategy to maximise the winning chances.
Principle 3: Divergent thinking is an enabler for creativity — Strategy is a continuous creative process for addressing business problems and opportunities. For this reason, having tools and models for facilitating this creative process is essential for developing good strategies. I have used divergent thinking as a platform for creativity during strategy sessions. It has been a helpful approach because it inspires people to create different and diverse ideas. People are also stimulated to diverge regarding each idea’s importance and implementation complexity. It’s an excellent way to nurture collaborative thinking and generate out-of-the-box ideas effectively during a session.
Principle 4: Think in the long term but act and revise in the short term— Long-term visions and aspirations are essential for companies. However, leaders must be able to take concise actions to learn and refine the strategy continuously. The business landscape tends to be unpredictable, so companies should be able to organise short and narrowed initiatives to collect fast feedback regarding directions and needed adjustments. The Strategic Mobilisation Canvas fosters this approach by inviting people to prioritise feasible initiatives to fit into short work cycles (between one and three months).
Principle 5: Strategy is a continuous and multidimensional process — Thinking about strategy as something done only by executives or as an activity done once a year is the greatest mistake a company can make. Strategy happens every day and everywhere in the company. Effective strategies amalgamate corporate aspirations, business capabilities and attitudes towards winning choices. For this reason, any strategy session is only a moment to use all the data, research, facts and insights available throughout the organisational tissue. We must do this homework before, during and after the sessions. That’s why the Strategic Mobilisation Canvas promotes a democratic space for ideating, diverging and converging the collective intelligence obtainable in a company.
These principles are the culmination of years of dealing with strategic conversations and decisions in different companies around the globe. They are not exclusive to the Strategic Mobilisation Canvas. Instead, those principles acknowledge some patterns underlying the most successful organisations I worked in during my professional life. Feel welcome to extend these principles to your context as needed.
A canvas for nurturing effective conversations around strategic themes
The Strategic Mobilisation Canvas(see image below) is a tool for engaging people and promoting a better conversation flow regarding strategic questions for an organisation. This canvas is typically applied for facilitating immersive sessions for mobilising people around the activities of:
Analysing the current strategic scenario.
Ideating options for building new capabilities and behaviours.
Prioritising the most valuable initiatives for achieving results in a given theme.
The Strategic Mobilisation Canvas is organised into several critical sections. Let’s explore and dig deeper into these elements.
Strategy involves mobilising organisational tissue to address relevant corporate and business questions. Therefore, the first section in the canvas regards visualising the major subject the group will strategise about. Each canvas is oriented to only one theme. If necessary, the facilitator can set different breakout sessions according to the number of existing themes. In this case, the participants will use multiple canvases during the whole process. It is also relevant to note that creating strategies toward a particular key result is a typical example of a theme if your company is applying the Objective and Key Results (OKR) model.
Why is it important for the company?
This is perhaps one of the most impactful sections because it promotes alignment regarding the reasons for and intentions behind any particular theme. A clear sense of purpose can bind people together. In this section, the participants should agree on why addressing that question is valuable to the company.
Current obstacles and uncertainties
This section will invite the participants to analyse the current reality to identify the most significant obstacles and uncertainties. Understanding notable impediments and the things we can’t predict is vital to identifying contextualised options for minimising challenges or navigating uncertainty.
Every company has remarkable traits and capabilities for creating value and achieving results. Leaders should be aware of these characteristics as enablers for creating superior performance. In this section, participants will identify the most relevant strengths the company can employ for navigating a given theme. Sometimes, enhancing existing strengths is much more effective than trying to minimise weakness or develop new capabilities from scratch.
As stated in the second principle, companies must focus on creating choices rather than a fixed plan for identifying better options for navigating dynamic scenarios and achieving superior results. This section will promote a conversation space for collecting ideas and creating consensus on the collective perception of value and complexity for each discussed option. Perhaps, this section will require the most extended amount of time in the session as it will encourage a safe space for ideating, diverging, grouping and selecting the best choices for materialising strategic moves in the organisation.
Top 3 strategic moves
After the participants carefully analyse the options, this section aims to generate convergence about one or three initiatives the organisation will take per each strategic theme.
Probably you are asking yourself why there are so few initiatives. Generally speaking, each strategic move is a cross-area initiative that will mobilise multiple individuals and teams. For this reason, it is tough to have enough capacity to handle too many organisational actions at the same time. Acknowledging this fact is the key to avoiding the overloading of unfinished ideas across the company.
Another significant benefit I’ve been observing is that people are more diligent in selecting valuable initiatives when there is some limit regarding the number of moves the organisation can handle simultaneously. Prioritisation is the secret recipe for the best use of the existing resources and energy to develop strategic intentions.
The image below shows a short example of a use case of these sections.
Wrapping this up
Strategising should be a living and continuous element in organisations. However, traditional management approaches tend to foster the preparation of high-detailed strategies based on long-term plans described in large documents and created in isolation behind closed doors by executives on the top of the corporate food chain. These approaches are no longer suitable for highly dynamic scenarios as companies need more operational and strategic responsiveness. For this reason, the Strategic Mobilisation Canvas is only a single tool for creating a welcoming environment for engaging people in this journey.