I was asked the other day about strategy and what that meant for client engagements. Obviously an open ended question, with few parameters. There was no use case study to help construct a foundation nor was there any sense of timeline for this imaginary engagement. So I gave my best response at the time but I have been thinking about ever since.
I have a couple of decade’s worth of process knowledge, design thinking, and pure strategic insights. I have led projects worth tens of millions of dollars all the way down to shoe-string budgets. I can remember seeing through any project no matter how big or small but in each case the due diligence was similar and while the strategy for the larger ones may have been more complex, the principals involved to ‘solution’ the answers were comparable.
I am not going to attempt to write down ‘the answer’ because I am sure that other people study strategic thought for a living; however I do want to part with some of my knowledge as an exercise for personal clarity.
I think that most businesses concentrate on their ROI and generally see things from their perspective. In other words, what will help the business’s bottom line. But I have always tried to get my clients to focus on their audience instead and try to think about what it means to them, their ‘personal ROI’ if you will. This is never an easy task but one which I think is necessary to ponder when devising a business plan. Perhaps this is the first step in the strategy. It is about adapting. Adapting your ideas to an increasing fast paced and fickle world environment where loyalty is difficult to earn and harder to keep.
When there is a sufficient definition of the audience ROI it is time to start the strategic due diligence. The most important of which is; understanding the client’s needs and where the particular project fits into their grander scheme. For instance is the project a temporary measure to offset another company’s move into their territory, or is it a long-term strategic initiative that will cement one corner of the company’s foundation. Regardless, at this stage you have to not just understand their needs but forecast the company’s initiative beyond their industry’s limitations. Look hard for game-changing ideas that may shift the focus of the project in a radical way. Of course the client is invaluable at this stage as they should understand their business better than anyone else. But this is where looking outside their company and at their direct and indirect competition helps birth a wider understanding of the project.
It is important in this stage to concentrate on divergent thinking, keeping in mind that the ideas will be generative. No one should be evaluating any of these ideas for their merit just as yet, that will come later. This does not mean that anyone in the groups are disregarding anyone’s ideas just that the convergence process is being deferred for a limited time so that the focus of the ideation sessions can remain ripe with energy. It is sometimes tough to remember but even bad ideas can spawn interesting thought.
Asking the right questions
So we now have a good understanding of the project’s ecosystem. Now comes the hard part, are we asking the right questions to begin with, or are we just attempting to answer the cries from c-class level officers who just want something done immediately to show movement. In all things business we have to be critical of what it is we are doing, why we are doing it and how is it benefiting the bottom line. Too often companies have a “me too” attitude, they follow what is out there but they do not initiate critical thought at any time towards a deeper/truer understanding of their business model. Maybe it is about honesty more than anything else?
Assessing the situation
None-the-less with the research and other information in hand we can now assess the situation. What is it that all our collected knowledge points to? Are there definitive patterns to what our research says or is the information we gathered more cryptic or indefinite? If it is open-ended, are there nuances that we found that will set us apart? This might be the stage in which we figure out what or how this company can really differentiate itself from its competition.
Making the decisions
But at some point we do have to make some decisions, and like I always say, “This may not be the right answer but it is the best one.” Now we have collected our available knowledge from within the company’s business and their ecosystem, we have attempted to ask the right questions, we have thought about what this will mean to our audience, and we have found the nuances that will set us apart. So we are not making our decisions lightly. We have spent days, weeks or months to get to this point with different groups participating towards this day of decisions. Not everyone agrees with the all the findings and some of the information we reviewed was incomplete but we must move our project forward and most of our answers have already made an impact on the larger project group. By this time there is already a rallying cry behind some of the potential initiatives, and even more of the group feels energized with the anticipation of building out the project.
Aligning the group
Of course we will move ahead and start to build the product or service but what about those who dissented? Yes those people, they will always be there on every project. We have to get them on board; they have to understand that for the good of the project and the majority of the stakeholders, we must get their best. Not that it wasn’t going to happen in the first place, mind you.
In one business facilitation lecture I participated in, one of the chief questions to ask was, “What is stopping you from moving ahead?” Well, this type of question must be asked sometimes for the betterment of the project because you must figure out if the non-aligned person will be an impediment. Aligning the group during this build stage is paramount because the launch will follow shortly.
Kicking the tires
Launch should be a celebration of a job well done. It should be a joyous affair, not roughened by the minutiae of politics or bad personal temperaments. At this point all the teams need to be vigilant of any missed project functionality. All the people that were once on the teams that had moved on to other projects need to come back for a short time to ‘kick the tires’ of the project. They will be invaluable in the effort to make sure that all their important contributions were part of the final project solution.
Collecting the Knowledge
The main reason I always want the whole team back for this final step in the strategic project cycle is for the knowledge gathering: a review of the good and the bad, the successes and failures. What did we learn along the way, what would we do differently, what could we improve, how could we engage the client in a friendlier manner, what communication worked well, what methodology was appropriate for what situations, etc. This is our chance to learn and grow our knowledge base, it will potentially help us make easier decisions the next time and allow us to avoid the pitfalls of certain situations and if we are really lucky, the review will help us work more efficiently with the next project.
Besides this process is about to start all over again, we now understand the client better than ever and have some ideas on how we can help them further… BusDev is already walking down the hallway, they want more ideas.