Samer K. Taher | Board Director
28th January, 2015
If you’re like me, a devout left brainer, then the analogy you are about to read is going to fit nicely into your black and white neurons. On the other hand, if you are one of those Google-colored creative right brainers, this article is not for you because it will most likely raise your blood pressure to levels I would not want to be responsible for!
You see, left brainers have this natural burning desire to translate everything they want to learn (or teach) into a process. They strongly believe that life can always be looked at with a step-by-step mindset. Well, I am no different and the article below about the ingredients and process for preparing to write a strategy is my tangible proof.
I have always been fascinated by the term strategy; more so after I became a management consultant, who makes a living by (hopefully) providing practical advice to people and businesses.
Right after I started my current career in consulting, I found out that the term strategy was one of the most abused concepts in organizations; for some reason, everyone wanted to get onto the strategy bandwagon and strategic this and strategic that were topics executives discussed almost on a daily basis. Strategic planning, strategic HR, strategic finance, strategic risk management, strategic marketing, strategic resourcing; even strategic warehousing found its way into this melee. When I looked outside the corporate world, I discovered matters were equally 'strategic' because the term was everywhere! Take for example newspapers where the front page will invariably have some columnist complimenting or criticizing the strategy of some politician somewhere in this world. Turn the page and you'll see the term peppered in the economic section where a pack of financial analysts are dissecting the failing strategy of their central bank or finance minister. Keep reading and you'll notice the term permeating sports columns where some coach is getting lynched for losing a match as a result of a poorly written ineffective strategy! Read on and you will discover the term in the lifestyle section where some gurus are giving you advice about strategic parenting despite not having had any kids themselves, ever. My goodness, the term is everywhere.
While I am not an opponent of the term, I am quite opposed to its trite use, especially when many using the term know neither what it means nor where it begins or ends. They somehow factor it into their corporate discussions and voilà, they become sophisticated subject matter experts. It might be worthwhile one day to ask these so-called pundits, plain and simple: what is a strategy? How is it different from a long term plan? What are its ingredients and how does one go about setting one? I mean, what is really the first step?
I am more than certain no two answers will be the same. Whereas, were the same questions to center on the term 'plan', the results would be unsurprisingly similar.
You see, a plan is quite simply (for a left brainer that is!) a set of steps, concurrent or sequential, which when effectively implemented may lead to a certain outcome (or goal). Its ingredients are a well-defined goal, a few resources and an 'action plan' which specifically outlines actions 1, 2, 3 and so on.
If you want to write a plan for achieving a 5% increase in revenue, you will automatically start by checking your revenue today, write down the steps you plan to follow over a period of say 6 to 12 months, and then implement your plan action by action, step by step.
But if someone asks you to write a strategy to increase the revenue, what are the ingredients you will need? What will be your first step? Your second? Your third?
In trying to find a left brain ‘simplistic’ answer to this question, I came up with what I believe is a good analogy: Turkish coffee!
Ask any Middle Eastern barista about the items you need to make proper Turkish coffee and they will invariably list the following: a suitable coffee pot, potable water, freshly ground coffee, an open flame or a source of heat, a long metal spoon, sugar (maybe), and the right chinaware.
To make the coffee, you measure the right amount of water (depending on the number of people you intend to serve) and pour it into the pot. You bring the water to a boil before adding the right amount of coffee while slowly stirring the mix with the long spoon. Once the brew starts boiling again, you add the sugar - if needed - and let the coffee simmer until it foams. When that happens, you pour the coffee into the china cups in two to three equal parts so every guest gets a portion of the sought-after foam.
Well, to write a strategy, you also need a few ingredients. Just like coffee, without these ingredients, you are unlikely to have a ‘serve-able’ product.
To start with, you need a place where the team tasked with writing a strategy can work uninterruptedly. Often referred to as a strategic retreat, this place will distance the team from the daily grind they are likely to go through 'back in the office'. In the absence of such a place, focus and synergy will suffer and this will directly impact the quality of the strategy being written. Just like coffee needs the right pot, a strategy writing session must have a venue conducive to the ingredients you are about to add.
Next you need the exact amount of water. That's the equivalent of the right quantity and quality of people involved in producing the strategy. Too few and the strategy session will burn, either due to insufficient ideas or the dominance of one or two (normally, the CEO's!). Too many people and the strategy will be diluted by the overabundance of contributions from members present.
Once the water has reached a boil you add the coffee. In my analogy that’s the equivalent of priming and motivating the strategy team members for this important exercise. Candidates invited to a strategy writing session must know, and be enthusiastic about the important role they are about to play in producing the desired outcome. Approaching the session nonchalantly or like any other meeting in the organization is akin to pouring coffee into ice cold water and then wondering why it is not being absorbed.
The next ingredient on the list is the barista; the skilled coffee blender who in this analogy is the session's facilitator. Using consensus building skills, in this case the long metal spoon, he or she handles the ingredients with care and keeps stirring the session until it produces what it was intended for. Many times, you see incompetent strategy baristas trying to facilitate sessions without having the necessary skills. I will not waste your neurons by describing the kind of strategy produced in such cases.
One more core ingredient in this process is fresh coffee which in this case, is up-to-date, reliable and valid information. Preparing coffee using old beans will produce a beverage that is likely to stay in the cup it was served in. Similarly, attempting to conduct a pre-strategy analysis such as a SWOT, PEST or PEDSTLE, by relying on outdated reports or obsolete data will likely produce a strategy that will not be welcomed by its stakeholders.
The last ingredient in this mix is proper chinaware. What good is any coffee if you have no means for serving it properly? Along the same lines, what good is any strategy if it is not professionally presented using the best media and tools available? Many times, you see strategies written onto dumbbell-heavy binders or presented in whole-day PowerPoint presentations. Well, such displays don’t work. On the contrary, they tend to complicate matters and make them harder to swallow. Just like Turkish coffee needs to be served in small thin china cups, strategy must be presented in fat-free form. You can do so using one or two sheets of paper or a 15 minute presentation, tops. Anything bigger or longer is the same as serving premium Turkish coffee in a mug!
Once the ingredients have been sourced and your guests have arrived, it is important that you follow the right process in writing your strategy so you don't end up with soup instead of coffee. This process, my dear reader, will be Strategy 102 so watch this space and enjoy your coffee.