For Winning Strategies, Step Away From the Big Idea - And Focus on the Plan

Sometimes it can seem like madness.

There are times when you work away at an idea. And you might uncover something revolutionary which you think nobody else has got to before. And then, you can walk out of your lab / think tank / garden shed and look around to see what everybody else is doing. If you’re doing something genuinely groundbreaking "most people" will think you’ve taken leave of your senses. *Cue waves of self-doubt and questioning.*

However when you find your own tribe, your own community, and you’re among people who think the same thoughts and who speak the same language it can seem like a relief. You’re not mad. Just different.

When you develop a game changing idea, it is only a strategy when you plan to put it into action.

When you develop a game changing idea, it is only a strategy when you plan to put it into action.

That's how the Upstart team felt when our Head of Understanding Jas Chana and Head of Thinking Troy Norcross turned up at the Future Strategy Club. More than a year ago, we banded together and worked out that strategy, as we knew it, Jim, was not working in the digital age. However, when it came to doing things differently, there was fear and unease from clients and prospects about entrusting strategy to anything other than tried and tested names and processes.

It turned out though, that we weren't the only ones having these deviant thoughts. Future Strategy Club Founders Justin Small and Stuart Whyte had created a focus for frustrated - and occasionally angry - strategists who were unhappy with the slowness and rigidity of 20th Century ways of generating and implementing strategies. And more to the point, was setting about reclaiming it, member by member.

Tonight, I'll be spending five minutes at Future Strategy Club giving my thoughts on the theme “Strategy is Winning”  alongside some of the other members who will be bringing different points of view.  If you want to get a preview, take a look at the "open fives" videos from our fellow speakers, John Caswell, Martin Barrera, Veronika Bridgman (also check out her post here), Stuart Whyte and founder Justin Small. One thing you'll notice is that all of them are unfiltered, live, direct to camera with no imperfections chopped out or airbrushed. All of us believe that strategy is something which lives and breathes, and is ongoing and dynamic, rather than something perfect, immutable and set in stone.

For my sins I'm going to provoke everyone with the concept that yes, “strategy is about winning", but winning is about planning (cue yawns). All too often, strategies deal with rarefied, disconnected concepts, involving the impact of future technologies or trends. And while that's the job of the strategist to keep their eye on factors and trends which will transform our lives and businesses, there's no point in seeing the future opportunity to change - unless you act on it.

And acting on it requires time. Time to time spent thinking more deeply about the problem. Time spent experimenting to see whether your big theory actually works time away from business as usual. It requires real time, blocked out  and protected in calendars, not to be pushed out by the next pointless knee-jerk internal update presentation.

It needs money.  Not much but if it's to survive it needs money in its own right and not to be begged, borrowed or stolen from someone else's crumbs or leavings.

And crucially, it needs people.

Not just bodies, but personal commitment to action, from the bottom up and the top-down. People to commit and believe that what you're doing is worthwhile and not just nice to have. People who will own and defend what they're doing.

In our Upstart way, we have three stages.  

1. Understand enables us to find out what's going on inside and outside the business. It gives us time to absorb some of the trends which are rewiring other industries.

2. Think uses design thinking, which is where we provoke the big ideas and work out what the change could look like. At the end of this"double diamond" process we've got the value hypothesis, or as we prefer to call it, a hunch. Then we spend the third and equal amount of time on

3. Plan gives us time to work through how this hunch could be tested. Target who needs to be involved, what kind of timescale we expect, and how much time, money and personal commitment will be needed.

If you do this, you at least have a chance of getting your strategic change away. If this step doesn't take place, what you’ve generated up until that point will be just another great idea. It will sit in a drawer somewhere on your hard drive gathering digital dust.

Planning is dull, no strategist will gravitate towards it.  Instead, everybody wants to be part of the big idea. Everybody wants the adrenaline rush that comes when we work out what things could be and the idea comes out of nowhere.

But unless you commit to action, you build something, measure whether it could be successful and learn from it, it's exactly that - just another big idea which never made it. (Until of course a startup or competitor goes and does it). And that’s the kind of outcome which gives strategy a bad name.  

So Let’s reclaim it. Let’s act as well as think.

Yes, strategy is winning, But the winning is in the planning.