The Strategy Question

It feels like strategy is flavour of the month. (That’s not a bad thing.)  Our own second Public Health Strategy for Hertfordshire is in consultation right now, and I have been asked to help with Strategy development for two national voluntary agencies I work with and a major local charity. Meanwhile the County Council’s Corprorate Management Team had a strategy afternoon (always useful) and the Prevention workstream of the STP has to deliver its prevention workplan.  Strategy is ever present.  It must be the end of the financial year!

Yesterday a very enjoyable and enlightening twitter conversation was started by J Thompson-McCormick on public health strategy, which prompted a range of folk I respect and whose views I learn from to tweet their take on strategy. What struck me was the variety of takes, but some ever present common themes.

That prompted me to do a bit of reflective learning.  I produced my first strategy in 1990 as a new local government officer.  Since then I have lost count of the number of strategies I have led, had a hand in or simply advised on.

When I came to Hertfordshire I led the process of our Public Health Strategy in 2013.  I learned that Hertfordshire likes a “plan on a page”  – whatever you do a graphic representation helps. This year I had nothing of value to add when my team did the work with others and did it brilliantly. To me that’s success. They get it. Actually being able to let them do it and clear the space for them was my most useful contribution.  What that showed me was that there probably isnt enough space to put a cigarette paper between my ambitions and those of my team. I couldn’t be happier about that.

Some folk think our first Herts Strategy was too detailed ( to be honest. it’s somewhere between a strategy and a business plan) but it does have a strategy on a page. And it was detailed for a reason – Public Health was new to local government and I had to both set out our stall and get permission to do things. I don’t need to make it so complex now. Strategies and our approach to them should adapt and change with circumstances. Now I have to work out how we deliver public health in a very straitened set of financial circumstances and a different partnership and governance world. Some fundamental drivers for our strategy (money, partnerships) have changed. Our approach to what the strategy looks like must too.

The absolute fundamentals

What nearly thirty years of doing strategy has taught me is that there are multiple ways to do strategy, and the acid test is whether it gets you to where you need to be as an organisation.

When I worked in the private sector we had people who used the Strategic Planning Society knowledge and people who used Operational Research techniques, and indeed these can be crucial in the mix of doing good strategy.

I’m convinced that the private sector remains better at intersectoral collaboration – read partnership – than much of the public sector.  In my experience private sector partnerships are driven by constantly articulating and driving out the value to each partner, however that is expressed, rather than having a competition about who can fit the biggest pile of caring-sharing management speak into strategies. We could learn an awful lot from that.

The fundamentals of strategy

I think there are only seven fundamentals of Strategy, and those given below are mine. I don’t expect anyone else to agree. I still find a Harvard Business Review article from 2010 on the Five Questions of Strategy hugely useful. That piece begins with the sage advice that “People make strategy more than it needs to be.” There’s a fairly similar piece in Forbes I like to refer voluntary groups to. NCVO produces four extremely good and short videos on strategic planning for the knock down cost of £8.99. These are brilliant and I have used them many times with groups. So use what works for you, don’t assume any single person has THE formula.

1. Does it get you to where you need to be given the context you face? (And no, let’s not analyse that to the nth degree right now.)

2. Does it deliver the value you need, however you conceive that? (partnerships, outcomes, services, income)

3. How do you do it with the least cumbersome set of paperwork and processes?  If you have to read across nine documents to work out what you need to be doing, you’ve probably got something wrong.  Anyone who tells you rigidly you must have a strategy, a business plan, a delivery plan and a suite of strategic action plans may have it right for them, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. There is NO hard and fast rule here. A strategy should ideally be a simple high level document with a “how will we get there” plan underneath. But if you combine the two, then that’s fine. That doesnt make it bad strategy. Failure to get results makes bad strategy.

4. Do the science (information, data, numbers, evidence), the art (influencing, leadership, stakeholder views and values) and your instincts (this feels and looks right given the issues we face) chime to tell you across all three of those domains this is right?

5. Strategies live and breathe and change, so expect to be in a different place by the time you get there. The key is whether you adapt as you go.

6. At a glance – can you graphically summarise and represent your strategy on a page?  No?  Then it’s too complicated.

7. Leadership and culture. The English public sector context is now such that leadership across distributed functions and responsibilities is the key to outcomes. Running empires is a dead leadership tactic for a passed financial era. (That doesn’t mean you let others control you or your budgets. Be a strategic dealer, not a doormat.)  Writing a business plan entirely on your own without any reference to anyone else (step forward several bodies we could all name) shows a signal lack of understanding this.  Leadership which is about getting my organisation somewhere without reference to others is folly.  Leadership which is about ensuring my organisation and others get to where they need to be is hard work, frustrating but essential. Producing a strategy in secret then expecting stakeholders to sign up (the early STP process) is just about the worst way possible to develop strategy and doom it to failure. Do the exact opposite of what NHS England did in directing Sustainability and Transformation Plans in their first six months and I suggest you won’t go very far wrong.

An example

I still think the best strategy I ever worked on was the Catholic Church’s national strategy on influencing healthcare. (As background, in case you’re wondering, over 200 care homes and facilities like counselling centres, with 3,500 projects are run from over 300 Catholic agencies in England and Wales, contributing an estimated £1.2bn of value to health and social care. Recent analysis of ONS data suggests that, compared to their size in the population, Catholics are eight times over-represented in the health and social care workforce in England. )

We had three priorities, suggested by Anthony Levy (an atheist, incidentally) , a man who’s done more strategy than I’ve had coffee, and whose style, take and modus operandi I just love:

  • Gathering – bringing people together to support each other and influence others;
  • Guiding – articulating why based on ONS data, Catholics are eight times overrepresented in the health and social care professions compared to the general population, the values behind that and why a belief in human dignity drives us to work in health and social care
  • Giving voice – Showcasing work, celebrating good practice, sharing what we do

Those three priorities, three years on, spurred action at national and local level with over 200  projects. And we monitor progress and impact under those three themes.  Consultant clinicians, bishops, domestics and policymakers worked together to produce it. We start the next strategy process in April 2017.

Getting to a good strategy

So, if those are the fundamentals, how do you get there?  In reality, there are multiple ways, and I don’t think I’ve ever stuck exactly to any single formula. The only must do is include people who are relevant – people who will deliver it, stakeholders, end users of this, politicians, leaders, anyone you expect to have on board.  I once started a strategy process by gathering people who couldn’t agree round a blank flipchart, said “what do we want to achieve? And we’re not leaving the room till we get agreement” and they produced a very clear set of five strategems within two hours, with some robust facilitation!

On another occasion I got buy in from a group that I would produce an initial rough position paper that they would rip apart and put back together again. And they did.  Usually I like to start with someone describing the situation and context, mutually identifying some principles of what will get us through, and then getting the group to articulate and produce a broad framework.  And then, usually, you have to have a small group work up the detail and come back for validation, amendment and augmentation.  Strategy by committee is painful. Strategy by whole town meeting is impossible.

Where on earth do I start?

Why not start with reading the Farnam Street Blog piece A primer on strategy and then some of the links below?  You may or may not then wish to read Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy if you have the time and inclination.  Then you need to decide on i) what you want to achieve and ii) a process to get there (but one you can change if you need to, in order to get the outcome right.)

The Process of Process

I think however you do it, you need a process to get a strategy.  That means you need to understand, get folk to agree, and then steward the process you’re using.  I like to answer the questions below (and adapt as I go along) so we get a good strategy.  You might find the wickedly helpful strategic planning toolkit for dummies helps. And I know people in private, public and third sectors who’ve used this at my suggestion and say it works.  I’ve adapted some of these principles from a book by Aubrey Malphurs first published in 1999. Others are my own

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why do we do what we do? (Values)
  3. What kind of world are we facing?
  4. What are we supposed to be doing in that world? (Mission)
    1. What are our must dos?
    2. What are our would like to achieves?
  5. What kind of organisation do we need to be to survive? (Vision) What values do we need?
  6. What will success look like? (Outcomes)
    1. How do we measure progress?
  7. How will we get there? (Priorities)
  8. What tools, resources, skills, processes and partnerships do we need? (Leadership, Culture, Skills, Deliverables.)
  9. Who do we need to engage to get a strategy out of this which people own?
  10. How do we make sure we adapt as we go along, and deal with pleasant and unpleasant surprises?

If I had a top tip

If I had a top tip on strategy, it is this. Everyone sweeps and looks forward to the future. Very few when they’ve done that then sweep backwards from the future to today, to see if the plan falls apart, which it often will. Sweeping forwards, then backwards, then forwards to correct is essential in my view.


The role of anyone leading a strategy process is one of stewardship. This isn’t “your” baby. It’s a process you are holding to get a group of people or agencies to a strategy that they can own and invest in. “This ain’t about you, princess.” If you can get folk to buy into this, and it feels right, then you’ve done your job.

Reading and learning

There are multiple tools and books out there. There are expensive courses and Master’s degrees and for some agencies these are useful.  For our purposes they’re probably overkill. I’ve tried to point you as I go along to the cheap and the free and the valuable above. In addition to the resources above, some people find the On strategy stuff useful. Bear in mind though they are trying to sell you their strategy and performance software.  Roger Darlington has a beautifully simple take.  HBR’s 10 must reads on strategy is good.

You don’t need massive sets of books and consultancies on strategy for most purposes.  Business plans and project plans and delivery plans or whatever you call them need detail in them.  Strategies need to blend high level and detail to do them well. In my view this is better produced by the people who will own it with a person or people leading process. Externals, if you use them, are often best to facilitate agreement and ownership rather than write it.

Happy Planning!

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