• Nick Smith

Getting it right - strategy & change

Happy New Year! Hoping you got a good break, and perhaps some space during it in which to reflect. One of my reflections, prompted by renewed involvement in strategy work during the Autumn, centred on the relationship between strategy and business change. I suspect that I’m not alone among change leaders and practitioners in feeling:

  • Without the deployment of good change capability, strategies are unlikely to succeed. One of my mantras has been: ‘better a mediocre strategy excellently executed than an excellent strategy mediocrely executed’.

  • There’s rarely, if ever, one ‘right’ strategy, though some potential strategies are wrong. Rather, there’s a range of coherent strategies and the key (again) lies in execution.

  • It’s how people are engaged, envisioned, equipped, and empowered for change that makes the difference in execution, more than the quality of strategic programme plans.

And, although a (significant?) proportion of strategy practitioners might disagree, I’m convinced of the truth – and the importance – of the above. The danger I face, and the strategy work through the Autumn reminded me of this, is drifting into ‘either / or thinking’ – letting a commitment to change excellence lead to a disregard for the importance of strategy. That’s just unhelpful.

It should be obvious too. It’s not contentious to highlight that changing process and systems so you can do the wrong things faster makes little sense: neither customers nor shareholders will thank you for it. Nor is it contentious to suggest that effecting change without a clear underlying strategic purpose being understood is dangerous: that’s change for its own sake, confusing and potentially random in appearance.

So change needs to be guided by strategy. Change narratives need to incorporate something of the ‘why’ that strategy sets out, going beyond ‘what’s in it for me’ relating to those impacted by change. That’s part of envisioning people so they will want to embrace the change.

But there’s an ask of strategy too. Strategy has to go beyond ‘what’ into ‘how’ if it’s to flow into and feed effective change – if it’s actually to succeed. An example: many years ago I was consulting with a large computer group. Strategy consultants had reviewed part of its product line and delivered a strategy of selling more at the high-end and making greater use of 3rd party resellers. That was ‘what’ the business should do, and it made sense. The problem was that the strategy offered nothing on how this could be accomplished. It didn't address why customers would want more high-end systems in particular, let alone what the business would have to do to accomplish the strategy – what and how it would have to change. In the absence of this, we had (in effect) to complete the strategy task before moving on to the change task.

I suspect I’m not alone if having to deal with this kind of gap between strategy and change. If it’s not addressed, both strategy and resultant change initiatives seem likely to fail.

So, effective change needs good strategy (how as well as what); good strategy needs effective change; and they need to be joined up. At Epion we talk about ‘doing the right next thing and doing the next thing right’. Maybe that sums it up?

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