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Strategy

The Core Components of Business Strategy

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In nearly every engagement where my goal is to craft strategy, I arrive at a point where my collaborators or clients and I need to create a narrative of the good thinking the emerged during the many processes we linked together and begin writing a master document, sometimes call a Strategic Plan. This article covers the foundational elements of the process, discusses strategic context, outlines the possible components of strategy, reviews some the important decisions that need to be made along the way, and concludes with a discussion of the difficult transition from strategy crafting to implementation.

Foundational Elements

There is a wide variety of strategic planning documents, some are short while others lengthy, some are mostly text while others feature graphics and pictures, and some are directive while others philosophical. Yet with all of the variation some commonalities shine through. The foundational elements arise from questions and considerations derived during the strategy crafting process. This section covers the early considerations and strategic context important to developing a useful strategic plan.

More often than not, those seeking to develop a strategic plan envision a single, lengthy tome that reads like a book and provides all of the collective actions necessary to achieve greatness over a defined period of time. This sort of master operating manual for the future is the hope that entices both planners and executives. Many hold on to their dream of creating such a document. In reality, these kinds of strategic plans are doomed to being marooned on bookshelves for a number of predictable reasons. While they may be grand documents shortly after being written, they exist in a changing world and lose relevance with each passing quarter and year. Vague visions lack the detail to be actionable. Individual strategies move at their own pace and become out of synch. Resource estimates made at the point of planning quickly show their error during implementation. Staff and leaders move in and out of positions and lack the knowledge of what they are doing and why. As my colleague Don Norris likes to say, “these kinds of plans quickly turn to fairy dust” and become forgotten.

My foundational principle is to consider a strategic plan not as a single grand document but as a system of living documents of many different types developed for a variety of purposes. Here is a listing of some of the possible elements in the system of documents that become a strategic plan:

  • Purpose and Assumptions – the beginning assumptions of the planning process that include things like foundations upon which strategy is based, part of current plans that should be tested moving forward, recognized conditions or commitments that are believed to be unchangeable, known future states that must be accommodated in emerging plans and actions, and beliefs about what is possible in the future. This document should answer the question, why planning now?
  • Strategy – this is the heart of the strategic plan and includes components such as mission, vision, values, strategies, goals, actions, outcomes, the planning horizon, and the strategic context. I explain each of the these elements more fully in the sections that follow. For many, this is what comes to mind when a strategic plan is mentioned.
  • Imagery – I like to challenge organizations to choose to create a single page graphic or image that represents the entire strategic plan. While I sometimes experience resistance to over-simplifying, I have found that in the end, this single page image becomes the most used and referenced document in the time that follows the planning period. Executives can quickly review their strategy with their employees, boards, customers, and publics.
  • Implementation or action – many planners and leaders know that actions need to accompany strategy or little to nothing gets done. Given that, you would be surprised at how many strategic plans do not include sufficient detail on implementation to fully execute strategy. Beyond the specific actions required to achieve each strategy of a plan, implementation depends on how the actions are sequenced, the length of time allowed for any one action to be accomplished, who will complete the action and ensure it gets done, and what outcomes should be observed once the action is complete.
  • Financial or funding – an even more overlooked element of a strategic plan is an honest estimation of the resources required, both human and financial. So many plans exist as organized dreams with no practical connection the realities of the complexities of resourcing implementation. New strategies are often layered on all existing operations asking individuals to go from 100% to 125% of workload. Equally disastrous is a strategic plan that creates unfunded mandates. A more sound approach is to include an integrated, aligned financial and resource strategy that accompanies vision and goals.
  • Communication – plans can be developed in any number of ways, some written by a small but wise group, others through broad participation and input. With the latter approach, communication is part of the process from the beginning. With the former, the success of the effort is highly dependent on how the plan is communicated and accepted by those that are tasked with implementation and action. I like to suggest that communication plan accompanies the strategy, action, and resource elements in a system of documents.
  • Units, division, or specialty areas – many individuals in organization ask how does this affect me or my department during the planning process. Strategy can exist at such an abstract organization or ecosystem level that there is no way for individuals to understand what to do. Implementation and action plans help this, but the best strategic plans ensure vertical alignment. This is the connection from top to bottom in the organization. Some strategic plans require aligned sub-plans from each of the organization’s units, divisions, or speciality areas.

For each of these elements, I like to answer each a number of questions that helps determine if we need a document or if the issue may be addressed in another way or in another document. What is the name of this document? Names are important when working with a system of documents. Further considerations are how they hang together and how they are sequenced. Who is the audience? Not every part of the strategic plan is acceptable or necessary for every audience. In many plans for example, implementation details need only be viewed by employees and managers, while important strategic statements like vision and values need to be shared very broadly. Also, some documents may need to have multiple versions for multiple audiences. What outcome does it drive? Each document in the system should exist for a reason and beyond that it should drive some kind of outcome or impact. What are the contents? This goes without saying, but we need to be thoughtful about the length and contents of each document. Short and concise is better than the alternative. And finally, how does the system of documents hang together. This has gotten much easier now with hyperlinked online material than it was in the days of bound paper.

I often use the following graphic in a strategic planning session I call the drafting workshop where I work with the plan writing team to begin to organize their thinking about the system of documents that might emerge from the planning process. Sometimes I will construct and complete a grid containing each of the questions as rows and the documents as columns to better understand the system of documents the make up a strategic plan.

All of these considerations cannot be fully addressed at the onset of a strategic planning engagement, However, without a full vetting of the possibilities, we often end with misunderstood expectations, or even worse, a failed planning process. However, with a honest dialog about the system of documents that should result from the planning process, potential is created, and the organization is better positioned for success in the process.

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About the Author

This article was written by Robert Brodnick , a strategy consultant who bring the best of thought-leadership and practice-leadership to help organizations spark thought and ideas, design and achieve their future vision, and navigate change as they focus, strengthen, and transcend current limitations.

 

Startups

The Most Important Tech Job that Doesn’t Exist

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Yesterday I asked a prominent VC a question:

“Why is it that, despite the fact that so many successful startup ideas come from academic research, on the investment side there doesn’t seem to be anyone vetting companies on the basis of whether or not what they’re doing is consistent with the relevant research and best practices from academia?”

His response was that, unlike with startups in other sectors (e.g. biotech, cleantech, etc.), most tech startups don’t come out of academia, but rather are created to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. And that neither he nor many of his colleagues spent much time talking with academics for this reason.

This seems to be the standard thinking across the industry right now. But despite having nothing but respect for this investor, I think the party line here is unequivocally wrong.

Let’s start with the notion that most tech startups don’t come out of academia. While this may be true if you consider only the one-sentence pitch, once you look at the actual design and implementation choices these startups are making there is typically quite a lot to work with.

For example, there is a startup I recently looked at that works to match mentors with mentees. Though one might not be aware of it, there is actually a wealth of research into best practices:

  • What factors should be used when matching mentors with mentees?
  • How should the relationship between the mentor and mentee be structured?
  • What kind of training, if any, should be given to the participants?

That’s not to say that a startup that’s doing something outside the research, or even contraindicated by the research, is in any way suspect. But it does raise some questions: Does the startup have a good reason for what they’re doing? Are they aware of the relevant research? Is there something they know that we don’t?

If the entrepreneurs have good answers to these questions then it’s all the more reason to take them seriously. But if they don’t then this should raise a few red flags. And it’s not only niche startups in wonky areas where this is an issue.

For example, I rarely post to Facebook anymore, but people who follow me can still get a good idea of what I’m up to. Why? Because Facebook leverages the idea of behavioral residue to figure out what I’m doing (and let my friends know) without me having to explicitly post updates. It does this by using both interior behavioral residue, e.g. what I’m reading and clicking on within the site, and exterior behavioral residue, e.g. photos of me taken outside of Facebook.

To understand why leveraging behavioral residue is so important for social networks, consider that of people who visit the typical website only about 10% will make an account. Of those about 10% will make at least one content contribution, and of those about 10% will become core contributors. So if you consider your typical user with a couple hundred friends, this translates into seeing content from only a tiny handful of other people on a regular basis.

In contrast with Facebook, one of the reason why FourSquare has yet to succeed is due to significant problems with their initial design decisions:

  • The only content on the site comes from users who manually check into locations and post updates. This means that of my 150 or so friends, I’m only seeing what one or two of them are actually doing, so what’s the value?
  • The heavy use of extrinsic motivation (e.g. badges) has been shown time and again that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.

The latter especially is a good example of why investing on traction alone is problematic: many startups that leverage extrinsic rewards are able to get a good amount of initial traction, but almost none of them are able to retain users or cross the chasm into the mainstream. Why isn’t it anyone’s job to know this, even though the research is readily available for any who wants to read it? And why is it so hard to go to any major startup event without seeing VCs showering money on these sorts of startups that are so contraindicated by the research that they have almost no realistic chance of succeeding?

This same critique of investors applies equally to the startups themselves. You probably wouldn’t hire an attorney who wasn’t willing to familiarize himself with the relevant case law before going to court. So why is it that the vast majority of people hired as community managers and growth marketers have never read Robert Kraut? And the vast majority of people hired to create mobile apps have never heard of Mizuko Ito?

A lot of people associate the word design with fonts, colors, and graphics, but what the word actually means is fate — in the most existential sense of the word. That is, good design literally makes it inevitable that the user will take certain actions and have certain subjective experiences. While good UX and graphic design are essential, they’re only valuable to the extent that the person doing them knows how to create an authentic connection with the users and elicit specific emotional and social outcomes. So why are we hiring designers mainly on their Photoshop skills and maybe knowing a few tricks for optimizing conversions on landing pages? What a waste.

Of all the social sciences, the following seem to be disproportionately valuable in terms of creating and evaluating startups:

  • Psychology / Social Psychology
  • Internet Psychology / Computer Mediated Communication
  • Cognitive Development / Early Childhood Education
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Sociology
  • Education Research
  • Behavioral Economics

And yet not only is no one hiring for this, but having expertise in these areas likely won’t even get you so much as a nominal bonus. I realize that traction and team will always be the two biggest factors in determining which startups get funded, but have we really become so myopic as to place zero value on knowing whether or not a startup is congruent or contraindicated by the last 80+ years of research?

So should you invest in (or work for) the startup that sends text messages to people reminding them to take their medicine? How about the one that lets you hire temp laborers using cell phones? Or the app for club owners that purports to increase the amount of money spent on drinks? In each of these cases there is a wealth of relevant literature that can be used to help figure out whether or not the founders have done their homework and how likely they are to succeed. And it seems like if you don’t have someone whose willing to invest a few hours to read the literature then you’re playing with a significant handicap.

Investors often wait months before investing in order to let a little more information surface, during which time the valuation can (and often does) increase by literally millions. Given that the cost of doing the extra research for each deal would be nominal in the grand scheme of things, and given the fact that this research can benefit not only the investors but also the portfolio companies themselves, does it really make sense to be so confident that there’s nothing of value here?

What makes the web special is that it’s not just a technology or a place, but a set of values. That’s what we were all originally so excited about. But as startups become more and more prosaic, these values are largely becoming lost. As Howard Rheingold once said, “The ‘killer app’ of tomorrow won’t be software or hardware devices, but the social practices they make possible.” You can’t step in the same river twice, but I think there’s something to be said for startups that make possible truly novel and valuable social practices, and for creating a larger ecosystem that enables them.

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About the Author

This article was written by Alex Krupp. see more.

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Strategy

3 Trends that Define Content Marketing in 2018

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These are the questions every digital business is desperately trying to find answers to today. But as anyone who works in content marketing knows, it’s never that simple. There are no quick tricks or insider shortcuts; to achieve sustained traffic through organic search, you simply need to be in it for the long haul.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get ahead. Providing you already follow the bible of content marketing — regularly publishing high-quality, valuable content for your readers — then there are more opportunities than ever to break free from the crowd and get noticed.

Successful content marketers keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future. They know there’s never one ‘right’ strategy that will always lead to triumph; just a set of continually changing principles and methods that need to be tested, used, and thrown out, tested again, used again, and thrown out again.

Here are three of the big emerging trends that are already making waves in content marketing and will help place you one step ahead going into 2018.

#1 The Rise of Machine learning

Machine learning, a subset of AI in which algorithms continually learn from inputted data and information, is changing the way we work, and at the same time, putting many folks out of business.

From automatically generating email content to curating content for social media, there’s little machine learning can’t do. And come a few years, when the full potential of the technology is realised and made more affordable, there’s little it won’t be doing.

In fact, by as soon as 2018, it’s predicted 20 percent of all business contentwill be authored by machines. Content like quarterly reports, profit/loss summaries, and real-time stock insights that follow set patterns and structures.

It’ll be a while yet before machines are producing creative content like opinion pieces and niche ebooks, though. In 2018, machine learning will begin its gradual takeover by securing its place as a content marketer’s best friend: helping them to create the right content, for the right audience, at the right time. This is data-driven marketing, and it’s arguably the biggest differentiator between an expert content marketing push and your bog standard everyday strategy.

#2 Co-creating the content world

The days of creating and promoting content as an independent marketer and being successful are dying. To make an impact today, it’s all but essential to forge partnerships and collaborate with others who can offer you and your audience something you don’t have.

More often than not, brands who execute winning content strategies today are working with influencers or bloggers or some person or another outside of their network. It may be to harness expertise and create content that can’t be found anywhere else, to expand reach to a broader segment of their audience, or simply build valuable relationships that strengthen their brand.

Everyone always has something someone else needs, so opportunities for co-creating or co-promoting content are huge. And with double the benefits from half the effort, so are the potential results.

#3 Personalisation is the new quality

Big brands are investing heavily in original content. Google is purchasing original content from media companies to fill gaps in their search algorithms. It’s clearly what the people want; but what exactly does it mean to make something original today?

It’s no longer enough to just put words together in an order they haven’t been before. Original content is content that resonates with a particular audience and is delivered from a place of authority. It offers new insights, preferably based on primary data, is trustworthy, i.e. thoroughly researched and referenced, and above all, is highly personalised for its readers.

Personalisation is becoming most important of all as today, 74 percent of online consumers get frustrated when content appears to have nothing to do with their interests. Expectations are higher than ever, and with many brands embracing dynamic content, if readers don’t get a customised experience from you, they’ll go get it elsewhere.

With advancing technology and growing demand for superior experiences, content marketing is getting smarter by the day. This makes it even more crucial for businesses to keep on top of the latest trends and be the ones to make the first moves. In 2018, it will be the brands that are bold enough to jump first and make the biggest splash who get the greatest results from their content efforts.

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About the Author

This article was produced by Connected, U.K.’s first specialist WordPress development company. see more.

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