Driven by strategy, or just driven?

This guest post is written by Phil Johnson, who reflects here on his workshop on strategy development.

Ask any SME head what they’re most short of, and the response will almost certainly be ‘time!’.  Time to think, time to plan, time to do all those things that just have to be done now!  All too often these are therefore dealt with in reverse order, (if, indeed, the first two are dealt with at all).

 

At the recent MCIL ‘Creating the Conditions for Innovation to Flourish’ event, Professor Kurt Allman and I attempted to show delegates how time spent on the first two can save time later, give direction to the business and help to chart a path through all those ‘important, non-urgent’ issues which are so often neglected.

 

As academics, we of course believe that the theory works (‘there’s nothing more practical than a good theory’), but we were not in the business of simply duplicating textbooks.  Rather, we wanted to focus attention on some key questions: where is the company going? Where do we want to get to?  How will we conduct ourselves on the way?  What makes us different?  If you are not clear, how can you expect your team to get behind you?  If they are not clear, what message are your customers getting, and why should they buy from you?

 

The aim of the day was to provide some precious space to consider such questions, to gain familiarity with some key tools and – more than anything – to encourage delegates to reflect on their personal practice as business leaders and on the impact of that practice on those around them.

 

At the heart of the day was a wall chart provided to each delegate on which they were encouraged to stick post-it notes with their thoughts on their own organisation, from Vision and Mission statements at the top, to implementation and monitoring at the bottom with – of course – a feedback loop.  Having been profoundly sceptical about the value of Mission statements throughout my nearly thirty years in business, my decade in teaching has taught me the importance of starting in the right place, with a clear(ish!) idea of where you want to get to.  The problem, in my experience, is that the vast majority of such statements are bland, vague, ‘please everybody’ wish-lists with little or no relevance to staff or customers and are therefore (at best) ignored.

 

In a world where resources are always at a premium, what we demonstrated on the day was that a clear Vision and Mission can help to motivate staff and to focus activity, with direct consequences for efficiency and making a real difference.  And let’s be clear, this does not simply mean ambitious turnover targets:  making the boss rich is unlikely to inspire your staff, whereas humbling your biggest competitor or (genuinely!) making a difference to your customers might just do it.

 

Within this bigger picture we presented a range of tools and approaches NOT offered as ‘one size fits all’ solutions, as is in my personal experience so often the case with too much management ‘training’, but as prompts to the reflective approach I mentioned earlier, and frameworks to help delegates organise their thoughts and begin to see the wood for the trees.  Despite what is so often taught, analytical models will never provide answers – that is simply not what they are designed to do.  What they will do when used properly is help to establish priorities, provide a structured basis for the all-important next steps, and – crucially – give you  the confidence that nothing fundamental has been missed.

 

Having established what the business is for and where it is going, the rest of the programme will build on these foundations to develop the idea of innovation with a better idea of what that innovation is for.  What is the use of an off-the-wall idea, if it has no relevance in your market (unless you’re into full-on diversification, but how many SMEs have the resources for that)?  Thinking differently in a focussed environment feels like a more realistic proposition, whether in products/services or processes.

 

Feedback on the day was both encouraging and gratifying.  The comment which most caught my attention being ‘the day gave me a lot to think about in an area I thought I knew well.’  There’s little more satisfying for a teacher than that.