How to make strategy stick

The other day I stumbled across this Kevin Kelly quote which really sums up something I’ve learned in the past couple of years:

“To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.”

In some fields this principle is so obvious that it’s barely worth remarking on.  Nobody questions whether repetition is important in becoming a great violinist, or basketball player.  “Practice makes perfect”; it’s a given.  But in other fields we neglect it altogether.

Strategy is one of those fields.

I’m as guilty as anyone.  In the past I believed that there were only two fundamental steps to the strategic process:

  1. Write the strategy
  2. Execute the strategy

Stands to reason right?  Well, not really, because in reality this is a little bit like saying all you have to do to play the violin is:

  1. Read how to play the violin
  2. Play the violin

…there’s clearly a pretty big step missing in that process, and that step is practice, aka repetition.

You might think I’m comparing apples with oranges here, and that a strategy and a violin have very little in common, but you’d be mistaken.  You see a strategy is indeed something you “play”; it’s an inert object that only comes to life when in the hands of someone intimately familiar with it, and who knows how to use it effectively.  Every strategy needs a “musician” (i.e. an “executer”) who knows its ins and outs intuitively, and doesn’t have to keep checking “where they’re putting their fingers” in order to avoid hitting “bum notes”.

What this means in plain language is simply this:

Between the development of a strategy and its full deployment, there is a “practice” stage where it must be turned over, discussed, tested, and tuned, over and over again.

Or, laid out as a process:

  1. Write the strategy
  2. Practice the strategy
  3. Execute the strategy

This middle stage is the main difference between strategies that stick and strategies that don’t.  This gestation period is needed for the strategy, the business, and the individuals concerned to accommodate each other, work out any kinks, and meld together in a sustainable bond.

How do we go about this?

We must first begin by assuming that our completed written strategy is only every 80% “baked”.  The general shape and key insights may be there, but to move it from a rough sketch to a true strategy can’t be done on paper, it can only be done by practice.

This is why in my projects I never overwork the initial strategy.  I don’t try to polish and substantiate it to the point of perfection.  I don’t try to “finish” it.  It’s a waste of time.  You know that no matter what you do, it’s going to have to bake some more in the practice stage, so you may as well crack on with a prototype.

Next you must start working with it.  What this will mean specifically is developing the ideas and tasks which have been thrown up by the strategy – e.g. new products, rebrand, new sales channels, etc.

What you’ll find here is that jobs which seemed straight forward at first glance actually have hidden subtleties lurking within them which need more thought than you expected.  This is where the art of practice lies.  Rather than treating the strategy as “fixed” and entirely dictating ideas you’re working on, you must also allow the ideas to feed back up to the strategy – a two way interplay that looks something like this:

So not only does the strategy shape the ideas but the ideas shape the strategy.  You are looking for a natural smooth accommodation between the two.  Obviously the broad stroke fundamentals of the strategy won’t change (if they start to crumble then you may have to go back to the drawing board), but the detail and its interpretations will.

This will feel very much like you’re going round in circles, but in reality what will be happening is a spiral ascending to every higher levels of fullness and completion – you may have seen this idea referenced in personal development / coaching circles:

You can expect this process to take about 6 months.

How will you know it’s done?  When you’re totally ready to pull the trigger on your executional ideas, and they’re fully aligned to the (now-tweaked) strategy.  Everything will sit together “right”, without any niggling contradictions that give you an uneasy feeling.

And of course this isn’t only about getting the strategy and the ideas lined up.  It’s about getting you lined up as well.  But if you’ve truly dug deep in this phase, that will have taken care of itself.

So always keep in mind – strategy is not just something you create, it’s something you do.  And like anything you do, it needs practice if you want to get it right.

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