The Group Partners Strategic Toolkit
‘Define Thing. It’s an ‘object’ that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to.’
Running a business isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s frustrating. The pressure is consistent - always on. It’s not for everyone. Things come at you from every direction. New technologies, market expectations, competitive threats, fashions and fads. A whole lot of things.
Each of these ‘things’ is important. They aren’t disconnected things either.
The organisation you work within is full of things too. Historically we split them up in order to manage them more easily. We split Marketing from Sales. We split HR from Technology. That may have worked OK in the past when the pace was slower. But there are major fault lines in this model. The pace is blistering - digitalisation, automation, globalisation to name a few.
“If you think it’s simple, then you have misunderstood the problem.” - Bjarne Stroustrup
It’s most definitely not simple.
There’s an increasing clamour for tools to help us cope. Tools are fine but (like millions of tools that have gone before) they need to be understood and applied properly.
All Things Considered
Understanding things properly is a challenge for everyone.
Lack of time, increased amount of information coming at us, countless new channels and media types - our attention spans are getting shorter. The capacity for different interpretations and perspectives on everything is dizzying.
So we’ve been worrying about all this for a long time. Almost forever. It’s not been easy to solve the problems that organisations have and create the change required because quite often it’s the people that find it hard to change.
“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” - Albert Einstein
Enter The Strategic Toolkit
Explaining How The Toolkit Works
First - A Question Of Perspective
As a business leader you have a specific perspective on your business. That’s good. Everybody else does too. That’s not always good - it’s where complexity strikes.
Everyone in your organisation has their own perspective. And they are entitled to it. The objective for an effective and efficient strategy challenge is to align around one way ahead.
Because we each have our own perspective we inadvertently create battle-lines. These differences, whilst natural and real can hamper the aims of a high performing organisation.
It really doesn’t matter what the aim of the strategy is (improve, transform, disrupt, enter new markets etc.) - these are realities that need to be dealt with.
We designed our approach from experience. We start with the belief that everyone’s perspectives are both an opportunity and a challenge.
We test everything from a number of directions throughout our work with the client.
Perspectives are real things, they exist.
Negative ones can be valuable because they hold clues as to why progress may be hard. Positive ones are helpful because they lay out a powerful and optimistic viewpoint. The art comes from knowing them both intimately.
As a consequence we turn them both to our advantage. The result informs the future strategy. No matter what - with this approach, we will establish a broad appreciation of the opportunity or challenge.
Over the years we’ve deduced a set of Indicators. We use them to sense and score maturity and understanding. These indicators allow us to better appreciate every situation. We listen intently through subtle and nuanced conversations and apply multiple tests to get inside all the aspects of the strategy.
These tests and indicators deliver us the insights that emerge through everyone’s perspective.
When You Add It All Up
At a simple level -
We perform in depth tests. They allow us to validate (with sufficient rigour) the reality.
They get us into the detail that’s so important to a great outcome.
We compare and contrast the individual perspectives against the indicators.
We gather results from the tests that we apply.
We begin to see how the areas of the Strategic Toolkit should be applied - and in what sequence.
We can start to develop better answers to the stated exam question.
The Thing About Multi-Faceted
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; only the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.” - Phaedrus
It’s never been more true -
That which appears serene and smooth on the surface is likely to be working like a maniac under the surface. The other possibility is that disproportionate effort has gone in, over many years - to making magic happen.
Beware The Deficit Of Attention
Depending on how much you are prepared to look at anything complexity is ever present. Because we have limited attention, or are not as close as others to the ‘thing’ under scrutiny, doesn’t make it any less so.
It’s the multi-faceted nature of everything that guarantees complexity. And it’s that which frustrates plans so often. At a strategic business level those that take a whole system approach are more likely to be successful in their strategic endeavours.
Four General Perspectives:
We’ve arrived at a set of perspectives that live within our strategic toolkit. We think they typify how businesses could think about everything. Importantly we believe our own individual perspectives map to and resonate with them pretty well.
An ‘environmental’ perspective which considers all the forces that conspire on a business. Both internally and externally. It recognises all of the dynamics and trends/pressures that are at play.
There’s an ‘archetypal’ perspective that informs operational behaviour. It flows through the business in similar fashion to how DNA works. It dictates our behaviours, our norms, our beliefs and our values.
A ‘capabilities’ perspective which seeks to understand how we’ve arranged ourselves to perform. This considers the physical and practical skills, tools and competencies that we need in order to function.
A ‘value systems’ perspective. The way we think and show up every day based on how we feel, how our values play into this and how our own contexts impact everything we feel and do. These viewpoints drive the judgments and positions we take on everything.
There are detailed definitions that explain the scope of these and they are interconnected between and within each other.
Signposting For The Future
The health of a business is an important factor. Especially when diagnosing and crafting remedies (strategies). A healthy organisation still needs to develop the right strategy. It needs to stay ahead and always be prepared for eventualities.
Stasis can mean rapid death and destruction to even the most stellar of businesses.
Just like the latest AI analysis done on us humans, the best data/information can start to identify issues well in advance. This can avoid significant harm to the patient. This is a central pillar of our whole approach.
We’ve developed 14 ‘indicators’ that signal the health of the business. By looking at what we find during our tests against these indications we’re able to quickly assess both the current situation and the degree of remedial activity required. We can ascertain how prepared the organisation is to succeed in their strategy. In simple terms against their own maturity and readiness in these key areas:
Accountability. Collaboration. Commitment. Conditions, Culture. Diversity, Information. Leadership. Mindset. Organisation Design. Resource. Talent. Technology/Digital.
Broad, and as open to interpretation they may all be, we have underpinned each term with a detailed definition. There are degrees of association within and between each which we then use to achieve a rigorous map and by default a more powerful assessment methodology.
A Method In The Approach
We aren’t crazy fans of methods. They can often be more interested in themselves than the task they set out to perform. As long as everyone stays open to valuable outliers that defeat most methods then we are good to go.
Ours goes like this:
Anchoring Intention - We will only ever be able to engage if we’ve agreed the challenge at hand. Whether a problem or opportunity let’s give it a name. We call the challenge the ‘exam question’. It can change as we evolve along the program. Fresh ones will get applied to differing facets of the challenge accordingly.
Covering All Areas - The 10 symbols and labels in the centre of the graphic cover the areas implicated in any self respecting strategy. Once again definition is crucial but we’ve developed a thorough scope for each area and again they are inextricably linked within and between each other.
All these are, to a greater or lesser extent, always covered in every challenge we’ve ever come across. They will always feature over the course of developing any program.
Fundamental Information - We will seek answers to each of the 10 areas. We will find the best ways to harvest existing intelligence. And we will cause conversation in order to deepen the understanding and appreciation of all of it.
Every one of the 10 areas will be a discussion in one way or another. We always aim to make this as smooth a process as possible. This will be as collaborative and as valuable as we can make it.
Always ‘Framework’ - Throughout all this we will be forming ‘frameworks’. Whether they are purely for our own use - to structure the multi-faceted nature of it all - or to illustrate progress - frameworks are a fundamental tool in our toolkit. As we gather teams together to collaborate and co-create at specific times these frameworks will also guide the crucial team conversations.
Always Insight - As insight and valid information emerges these frameworks start to take on other uses. To inform the wider operation or key stakeholders of progress and to ensure we validate our own assumptions and design the strategy itself. To us frameworks are highly powerful mechanisms for proving whether systems will work, whether the direction is aligned across the multiple perspectives and whether we have material gaps that need solutions.
Identifying The Opportunity - It’s bound to happen that in developing new strategies there will be elements completely missing or in need of further development. (Gaps) This is likely to be where the big opportunities to improve will exist. If there weren’t then we would probably have failed. If material change doesn’t occur then the status quo would be maintained - the business would likely fail.
The framework approach will bring these things into sharp focus. It will allow us to deep dive into these areas and bring them into focus as a valid part of the future plan.
Constantly Connecting - As this approach evolves we will be bringing to bear the six ‘tests’ - these test our earlier tests. They are in essence 6 mandatory tests for every leader today. They are a powerful measure and they guide how valid strategies should form. Once again we have in depth definitions that sit behind each ‘test’ and a wide ranging series of questions and conversations within them.
As before they are connected both within and between each other and additionally to everything defined above.
In the representation you can see 10 areas that are common to every business model. They are present in every business case and every business situation we’ve ever come across. These areas are not ‘nice to have’ - they are essential.
They are not optional - they are present and need to be considered within every successful strategy.
The Devil Of Language
We accept that all these ‘things’ can be called by very different names. Alongside each of them we’ve written a short definition.
As we’ve said the connection between these things and the integration of them with everyone’s perspective and our observations through indicators and tests we are in a far better shape to create the right answer to the challenge or opportunity our clients have.
There’s a rational framework available to every business should they choose to use it.
The model itself hasn’t changed much over time. It’s common sense. However the ‘stuff’ inside it is constantly changing and that’s where complexity resides. Every organisation has its own set of choices to make.
They have to constantly play with the parts.
They have a solution - a product or a service or both.
They declare their place in the world - they may call it a mission and/or a vision.
They will develop a strategy for achieving their vision.
They may well support all this with a business case/business plan.
That plan will need to rest on a financial case and model.
They will create a set of plans for getting there.
The key to this is how strategy is conceived. It relies on how completely the team considers all the things involved. Then it matters how well they manage the execution and implementation. It becomes critical to the mission how well progress is measured and how well we adapt when circumstances change. That’s the measure to apply if your aim is a great outcome.
As a result the model needs to arrange how the organisation is set up to perform its work. It has to calculate the skills and resources it feels it needs, (internally and externally). It has to construct the structures required to make it manageable. It has to integrate the systems and processes that people should follow to keep them 'compliant' with intention.
All of these create the ‘conditions’ within which things happen. How well we design this will determine how well or how poorly we will deliver. All strategies rely on insight. The better the insight the better the strategy. Simple.
Given the quality of the insight the greater our ability to make uniquely valuable decisions. The better the insights the more likely we are to use the information and knowledge we have to greater effect. Armed with our structures and approach to the design of this information (map) we have the ability to spot patterns and deduce better clues from the many sources of information we have access to.
And because we embrace different viewpoints (perspectives) and refer constantly to the indicators* we can make the best possible judgments.
*Indicators - That thing that indicates the state or level of something. The measure, gauge, barometer, index, mark, sign, signal, meter, measuring instrument, measuring device, measure, gauge, dial, display, scale, index.
Organisations Are Complex Ecosystems.
Beyond all of the technology, processes and systems every business is made up of a diverse mix of human beings. And because of the way we’ve split the business up each ‘division’ of the business has a different perspective.
These are fiercely defended because livelihoods depend on them. Each area of the business develops its own different agenda. Over time there emerges a mix of complementary and competing demands. We make everything ever more complex.
“Every one of us is unique. We may share some common traits and beliefs but we are shaped by very different contexts.”
The Cultural Thing
Whenever a collection of people get together they will cause a fresh set of dynamics. Human beings form tribes, new norms are established, loyalties are pledged, common interests start to form They create ‘natural’ connections that reshape how they work and the commitments they make to themselves and the organisation.
“Over time the business will form its own identity. The sum of all the parts dominates that of any individual.”
The forces conspire and we call it culture. Effectively this is the DNA of the Organisation - shaped by behaviours and values, beliefs and opinions. The DNA of the business can conflict with that of an individual. That’s what happens.
In Search Of The Holy Grail
Although almost always on the wish list, there’s no single view possible of such a complex/dynamic business landscape. Leaders have to assess choices and explore issues through a range of lenses and from vastly different perspectives.
‘There’s a lot of things to think about.’
It stands to reason that some things only need occasional attention. Other things need to be on a constant watch list. We have to be specialists and generalists. We have to see the big picture at the same time as diving into specific detail.
Standing To Intention
Alignment - another ambition for leaders. One that feels compelling but often remains a dream. In the complex reality of the world, absolute alignment is a rare state - the system is persistently in flux. The dynamics shift so the organisation has to respond. That’s the law of organisational physics.
The organisation has a powerful anchor though. The anchor of intention. All organisations exist for a reason. As the organisation becomes increasingly transparent to all stakeholders the business needs to operate with a purpose. Nowadays, that has to go beyond just making a profit for its shareholders.
‘Ideally the business purpose is in complete harmony with the needs of all of the stakeholders that it represents.’
A purpose-led business is conscientious. It cares about its consumers as much as it recognises the need for ethical and moral decisions. It has to make the right decisions about resources and vote with respect for its people and the communities it affects. It requires the business to deliver value and appreciate the impact it has - in many different ways.
Integrity of Intent
“Changing how we think, what we think and the actions we take”
You have a Vision for a future - a vision that is different somehow. Whatever your idea is, it changes things for the better. It describes a world that looks and feels a certain way because of your initiative. You presumably believe it has value and will create impact - and that the world needs it.
You really want others to feel your passion and buy into your version of the future.
How inspiring is your vision for others?
Can you bring it to life for them?
You need to get others as excited and inspired as you are by this Vision.
This means you need to be able to put that Vision into a context. A context that will resonate with others. This means you need to be 'solving' for something. Either you are addressing a problem or bringing a new opportunity to life.
Your Vision has to have purpose. Having a purpose - a mission - is great. But do you fully understand this 'issue'? The world is full of good intentions leading to unintended consequences. Consequences that mean you have solved the wrong problem - or introduced new problems, and followed false promises of potential. Potential that never materialised.
How good is your insight on this topic and anything that influences it?
How deeply have you explored this and from how many perspectives?
Would you say you have an appreciation of the causes, not just the effects?
What are you basing your insights on?
How objective is that source of information?
Knowing what's driving you and causing the energy for everything is a vital baseline. You need to know the cause and catalyst for all this and why and what is driving you. Without that it's hard to have an honest conversation or make the best possible choices - rational thinking quickly gets hijacked by carefully crafted arguments to suit agendas.
Have you asked yourself exactly why you are committed to this Vision?
Are you driven by circumstances that no longer hold true?
Are you convincing yourself because that's just convenient.
What motives are shaping the way you think about this vision?
What do you really want out of this?
What pressures or beliefs are leading you in this direction?
How do you justify those pressures?
If you are intent on changing something then you need to know what you expect to achieve and how things will look or feel different. There has to be a tangible result, something that tells you and others that you have succeeded - and that others see as valuable.
Those outcomes - combined with the drivers influencing you - set the bar when it comes to your ambition. You have to state just how big a prize are you shooting for and where are you most likely to invest effort in being successful.
How will you tell if you have been successful?
How far can you take your vision?
Will you be realising a series of outcomes along the way?
What stories can you tell about the short term achievements vs the end result?
People like to see change happen in order for them to believe in the long game.
You will have to convince people that this is real - that change is going to be tangible and to know where to expect to see value. Value has many different identities and is not always quantifiable. You will need to be very clear as you set expectations with stakeholders. You have to be able to state what they can look forward to and how value will show up to them as individuals or entities.
Where will you get the evidence that you really have achieved what you set out to achieve?
How measurable are your outcomes?
Do you take account of the intangible value as well as the tangible?
Insightful and Authentic Connection
Before you can be certain you will convince others that yours is the vision to get behind you need to know enough about these 'others'.
How much effort and energy will you invest in really getting to understand them - their mindsets, attitudes, needs and preferences?
These are real people, just like you whose lives are already full of many choices they can make. They are constantly inundated with information being fed to them and living with their own pressures and drivers. This is all shaping what they think about.
Beware of generic and superficial stereotyping and making convenient assumptions!
Don't stop at the people who you want the most direct connection with. In fact, don't stop at people. Whatever your proposition, it will be impacting more than just your customers. And even if it's not top of your list, these impacts may be high on the agenda of the people you want to attract.
How much do you think about the less obvious stakeholders?
Who - or what - does your proposition impact across the value chain? Do you actually know your supply chain?
Are you thinking about how you can have a positive impact - or at least the least harmful?
These people (your stakeholders) are influenced by what's going on around them. That will vary quite considerably depending on where they live, the dominant value systems at play, the most significant influences on their lives and their general state of mind and well being.
What (or who) is it that is grabbing their attention?
Why should they care about your insights into the challenge or opportunity that has captured your imagination?
How do the current hot topics align with your vision and intentions?
There is no getting away from the role relationships play in any endeavour. Belief, Trust and Confidence lead to shared commitment and transparency. This is all absolute vital to a successful outcome.
The sooner strong bonds are created the less risk there is of misunderstanding and misaligned expectations. Avoidance of those common causes of breakdown requires honesty and clarity.
It's never easy when there are always going to be different perspectives and definitions to align.
Knowing as much as you can about your stakeholders is one thing, they equally want to know about you. This relationship is critical. Interested parties will need to know what you stand for and the type of organisation that you represent.
How strong is your bond with your own organisation?
Will your culture resonate or conflict with the people and organisations you most want to impress?
How 'like minded' are you really?
What 'norms' shape the behaviours and attitudes of your organisation?
Propositions Worth Caring About
Ideally your vision is developing at just the right time, you have a golden opportunity to tap into something that is answering an emerging need - or better still - that is just ahead of anyone realising there is a need. Of course this is only likely if you have been an avid explorer of your market, your adjacent markets and the latest tech trends that have the potential to shake up any industry.
How much are you investing in innovation and R&D?
Where on the spectrum is your proposition? - where the spectrum starts at tried and tested and ends somewhere around 'never imagined'
Are you fixated on your current competition or the fresh start ups?
Will your business models support you in the future
Mutual admiration and respect is great but to build a valuable relationship that helps to achieve your aims requires that you have something that others actually want or need.
Even if they don't realise it yet.
A proposition has to be much more than clever marketing and creative strap lines. There are no shortage of those, and while they may well attract attention they won't attract real engagement if they aren't backed up by something that offers real value.
How well do you know the customers you are targeting?
How varied are their needs?
In a world where information is coming at us from everywhere and attention is incredibly short we are competing on value, quality, differentiation and relevance. There needs to be a pretty good reason for them to take notice of what you are saying to them.
How different is it anyway?
Have you proven it?
Can you deliver it and keep your promises?
Will it pass the AIDA test (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action)
How easy will it be for your customers to take advantage of your proposition?
Responsibility for the Future
Sustainability is a word that has been on everyone's lips forever. It's a word that needs a clear definition in each case, there is no single definition even if we would like to think there was.
Every business wants 'to be sustainable' - in most cases they mean they want to stay in business, the self serving definition of the word. Fortunately a growing number want that word to mean more than that, they are recognising how big a part business has to play in the sustainability of our world, our planet.
But even then many definitions are based on limited appreciation of the impact we are having right now or a clear understanding of the actual issues we need to address..
What does sustainability mean to you?
What responsibility do you feel your business has when it comes to sustainability?
Do you know the impact you have right now on the environment and the communities you operate in?
Given the current attention on issues like Global Warming and Mass Extinctions people are demanding that more is done, and that change happens quickly. Soon the different definitions of sustainability will become irrelevant - to stay in business you will have to prove you deserve to be there.
Have you ever mapped your goals to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (or an equivalent)?
If not would you consider that? And how aligned would you be?
Which global targets do you most associate with?
What are you committing to beyond your own success?
What do your workforce and local community expect from you?
How will you ensure you honour your commitment?
At the business level staying relevant is going to be one of the biggest drivers for long term success. That is going to require the right mix of capability (which assumes the right mindset as much as the right skills) and a continuous commitment to evolution - to staying in touch with the way society is changing.
Are you equipping yourselves for the future or just immediate needs?
Are you designed in a way that will even attract the right talent?
Do you know what talent you need to achieve your vision?
Do you know where you would find that talent?
The Means to Succeed
Having the passion and imagination to realise a vision is a great foundation. However, at some point you have to be able to convert that into a reality. If your vision is ambitious and leading edge you are going to need help and quite possibly skills that you would not typically employ yourselves.
How good are you at partnering and collaboration?
How broad and diverse can you make your talent ecosystem?
Do you have something to offer the talent that you need?
Are you clear what you want from them?
Will they be attracted to your proposition?
Are you looking at the implications for your Operating Model?
This is an opportunity to think differently about capability and resource, about the way you equip yourself to realise your vision. The biggest overheads for any company traditionally are people and infrastructure.
You still need them but the way you think about systems and technology can be very different. Different enough that it can be done in ways that are supportive to people and the environment, as well as creating value for your business. Organisations are proving it today.
How 'current' are your core systems?
Is technology a key element in your thinking?
What is going to keep you true to your culture?
We are living in an information rich period and yet we still struggle to build meaningful insight a lot of the time. As our access to data grows, our attention span and desire to engage in complex topics diminishes. Information lives literally everywhere and some of the most valuable is never there when you need it.
There is a critical balance to be achieved between open and unstructured approaches and disciplined and structured. Neither end of this spectrum is going to serve well.
What tools are being utilised to harvest important information?
Do you have clarity on what the important data / information is?
Have you considered the value in building accessible insight?
How much is the sharing of insight encouraged?
What kind of environment will you offer?
Vision traditionally gets followed by Strategy which then gets converted into a plan and/or a roadmap. You have a plan forming and you know roughly what you need to do - or do you?
The relationship between Strategy and Operations has always been pretty tenuous. For many organisation they exists in completely distinct worlds of their own. Some people 'do strategy' while everyone else 'gets on with their jobs'. If those focused on their day jobs actually got to hear about the vision and strategy it was probably at some kind of formal event - one that was trying to communicate a vital message to a large group of (sometimes carefully selected) people with very different needs and perspectives.
It's no wonder we forget why we are doing certain things - assuming we ever really knew. No vision or carefully crafted strategy is going to last long if the people who are actually going to do the work have no real connection to purpose.
Can you - and your teams - always map activities back to vision and intention?
How often does the vision and strategy get discussed?
How real do you make it for people?
Do you celebrate achievement?
Do you 'own up' to mistakes?
At some point along the way reality kicks in and things change so much that we lose that line of sight back to our original Intent - assuming we have managed to maintain that. Day to day pressures, new dynamics and curve balls can easily derail progress. The more disconnected strategy and operations are the harder it is the maintain focus on the longer term aims.
It's inevitable that circumstances change. With that come new drivers. That doesn't mean the vision needs to be dismissed, ay least not without some reflection and consideration.
What does matter is the ability to navigate certain disruptions and distractions and to adjust accordingly. If that means changing the vision as well then that is the right thing to do - but change it, don't just forget it. And then realign everything else to that vision. Change interim outcomes and priorities and shift to the new tracks.
How well do your processes and systems handle change?
How often do you realign strategy and current activities?
How do you decide when it's right to deviate from the plan?
How is impact across the organisation assessed?
What flags / interventions do you have to alert you to the need to revisit plans?
What is your approach to evaluation / learning?
Having that clarity of outcome is critical now - without that it becomes much too easy to measure progress by things that are done - regardless of the impact they have.
In an ideal world everyone is so engaged and supportive of the vision that their actions are always governed by a shared intention and ambition. We don't live in an ideal world though and so we need models that work - without making them someone's full time job to police - that is how bureaucracy emerges.
Do people understand and appreciate why they are doing what they are doing?
How do you know you are making the right progress?
How do you measure impact?
What do you do if you are not achieving what you expected, when you expected?
How do you keep people accountable to the vision and strategy?