Unstrategy and the last mile of change

December 5th, 2016 by Jenny Wilson | Strategy

We work in a market where the distance between an organisation and its customers is literally a “social entry” away, where an organisation’s next best offer is only a fifteen second search from the next best alternative.

Digital has allowed the consumer to hack through the previously shielded walls of the organisation structure, and they are demanding change faster than the organisation can respond.   In this environment, the simple equation of “distance and time” is threatening the relevancy of good strategy, at a time when you could argue we need it most.

Having been a strategy consultant for many years, I cannot help but feel that the traditional mindset around how to do strategy is not changing quickly enough to meet the new demands of the market we all operate in.   And so it begs the question – is strategy at risk of being increasingly “less relevant” in influencing organisational change.

It was once the organisation that decided how a customer would engage with it; today customers are the designers of their own experience, interchanging brands, services and products based on the context and needs they have at any particular moment.

 

When you are facing change of this nature and magnitude, intimacy with the customer is potentially the only hope of staying relevant.  But too often traditional strategy is developed at a lofty distance from the richness of insight that the customer can bring.  This distance is in turn exacerbated by time horizons of execution that simply don’t meet the pace of change the customer is moving at.

It is this simple equation - “distance and time” – that is threatening the relevancy of good strategy, at a time when you could argue we need it most.
So here are three ideas for how we can “un-strategy” strategy, correct the dilemma of distance and time, and help strategy regain its relevancy.

Unpack the method
Often a change in process is one of the easiest ways to change behaviour.  If we think then about traditional methods of strategy, there are some very practical and real ways to change the steps in the process for improving both distance and time to the customer. 

Here are four ways to change process that can have a real impact:

  1. Shift the act of hypothesis setting one or two steps down the process. 
    Hypothesis setting in times of rapid change is too assumptive, lacks the spirit of exploration and relies too heavily on history as its guide.  Start instead with the act of context setting, with a very well framed problem that provides the freedom to explore.  And make it personal to the market you seek to understand

    Replace phrases like “Competitors will, we will, the market will, we should, we can” with “how might we, what are the, where is the, what can we learn from”.  It seems subtle but it will have a profound impact on the mindset of how strategy is approached and allow for the act of exploration.  Only with this first expansive view should the step of hypothesis definition then take shape.  In other words listen first, synthesise and then formulate your hypotheses.
     
  2. Change the approach taken to data gathering.  
    I would hazard to suggest that the majority of the data used in defining strategy is historical in its insight.  Desktop research on market growth rates, prior performance, forecast growth, and competitor analysis is no longer sufficient in preparing an organisation for a future market that is still defining itself.  Shift the balance so that you are gathering new insight:• Don’t simply conduct segmentation analysis, marry this with ethnographic enquiry into the market to glean new insights into how consumers are adapting their behaviours, adjusting their emotional states and connecting in new ways to one another and to new experiences
    • Don’t simply conduct desktop market research, couple this with interviews with real subject matter experts, organisations both local and global, and your own talent base to tap into the future changes they predict rather what we know to be true today – and allow this humanised and qualitative research to open new insights that are not already written in history
    • Don’t limit your perspectives on data.  The phrase  “left brain data analysis and right brain creative analysis” is a limiting mindset to adopt.  The analysis of data should be seen as a creative process and used to fuel strategic innovation.  Social analytics, behavioural analytics, value chain and pricing analytics – a creative mindset to how you apply these techniques will reveal strikingly different insights if you allow them to.
     
  3. Unleash the conversations
    Having adapted the process the next important change in behaviour is changing the engagement model.  For too long the conversation about future strategy has been held amongst a minor and typically homogenous set of individuals who are often some of the most distanced from the heart of the market.   Inevitably it results in a “last mile” dilemma, where the reality check of relevancy and action-ability of a strategy fall short of the original intent, and sometimes in a timeframe that is just too late for what the business needs.

    The first important aspect of unleashing the conversation is having it with the customer.  There is a big difference between a strategy “designed with the customer in mind” to one “designed for the customer”.  Bringing the customer into the conversation to open new ideas and opportunities and to test concepts and points of marked differentiation brings a realism and early validation of the strategic choices being made. The second is having it with the business.  This is more than interviewing some business stakeholders upfront and then returning at the back end to inform them on completion of what the strategy is. It is about a continuous conversation – a regular recurring meeting in the diary that is content rich, that connects the business to the insights you are gathering so that they can contribute their collective thoughts, ideas, expertise and pragmatism.  Don’t limit yourself here to the obvious stakeholders either - think creatively about tapping into the broader expertise in the organisation, and address diversity as a conscious criteria for inclusion. These two conversations will go a significant way to solving the last mile dilemma.  They will be the difference between what looks good on paper and what is truly desirable, viable and feasible in market. We like to think of these conversations as a form of strategic prototyping.  So have the conversation.
     
  4. Unlock the narrative
    John Hagel, Leader of Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge, has recently written on the power of narrative.  Different to a story that has a beginning and an end, a narrative creates a call to action that involves and evolves with the market, engaging communities of creativity to build out its journey.  Apple’s call to action - “Think Differently” is a case in point example of defining a narrative for change that is intended as much for the market as it is the organisation.
    This narrative is a far cry from the way strategy is communicated today and indeed from the way in which it is executed on.   What if you took your strategy off the power-point deck and translated it into a narrative to engage your market in what you are trying to achieve?   Then, even more radical, what if you put aside the pre-ordained roadmap and set of initiatives and provided the freedom for creativity to surface on how best to realise the strategy across your organisation and the market? This may be too big a first step, but starting with a different mode of engagement is a good start. These three changes – unlocking the process, unlocking the conversation and unlocking the narrative of strategy can go a long way to helping solve for the dilemma of “distance and time”.  Most importantly it can re-gain the rightful role strategy needs to play for helping the organisation navigate the pace of change which is now a matter of course for every business.
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