News & Views

Should Strategies Be Shaped Early and Often?

by Contagious Contributor

Made By Many's 'strategy-type person' Andy Whitlock on the benefits of thinking and planning Lean

There's currently lots of discussion about the pros and cons of doing strategy in an agile, or Lean way. Debates about strategy can get a bit lofty, so I'm going to make a case in plain terms.

First up, it's unhelpful to treat strategy as an activity. Strategy is a noun. We don't 'do strategy', we devise strategies. Making it an activity is a surefire way to cloud the debate because it allows us to sweep anything we wish into its fuzzy midst. This black-box mentality serves only those who wish to maintain mystery. 'Those four weeks? That was Strategy.' Let's just agree that lots of disparate activities contribute to the emergence of a strategy (some more formally than others) but that the meaningful milestone from a business perspective is the arrival of the strategy itself.

So here's another way to frame the debate: should strategies be forged more quickly and evolved regularly like the products they exist to steer?

The opposing arguments go something like this:

It's risky to spend ages reaching a plan, some say, when even the greatest plan is a guess. Strategies need validating and the longer you wait, the more time you could waste.

But, others retort, nothing is as risky as making things aimlessly. A good strategy prevents waste through rigour and focus; rush in and you could miss the greatest opportunity. 

Both views have merit. So how do you avoid spending lots of time on an untested strategy as well as ensure said strategy is informed by knowledge, consideration and expertise?The answer is with high concentration, and I'm not talking about frowning a lot.

Lots of folk think Lean is all about speed. It's become caricatured by the repetition of phrases like 'rapid iteration' - an invitation for the cynical to read as 'rushed and lacking in rigour'. The truth is that working in a Lean way enables you to pack loads more into less time. Potency, not speed.

A good strategy relies on the deft application of knowledge and experience. But instead of being drawn out over long periods and burdening only a special few, this can be condensed into short, intensive bursts. Strategies change - even rigorous ones - so we can discount perfection, we're looking for our best starting point. With the right people in the room, that can be reached faster than some might like to admit.

At Made by Many, we reach our starting strategies within a couple of days, through intensive sessions and a high concentration of expertise and discussion. Critically, we have strong representation from the business itself: people who've been chewing over these 'new' challenges for months or years. We collectively gush forth an unapologetic amount of input, using tools and nous to organise and focus efforts. Yes, some people are better at guiding this process than others. And you can call them strategists if it makes life simpler.

These concentrated sessions enable us to reach informed strategies without committing too much time before they've been validated with customers. And make no mistake, it's only the right strategy if it leads to experiences customers want (not just if it fits the business plan). Propositions are developed quickly to represent those strategies and as they are tested and iterated, so too the strategy adapts.

I know how this sounds - almost offensive. A process that super smart people spend weeks on can't be replicated in a matter of hours! But a straight comparison misses the point. Lean is a response to coping with uncertain conditions. If you believe uncertainty exists, you must embrace it throughout your process, which means acknowledging the limitations of masterminding anything up-front.

Of course, every industry is different. Deliverables and risks vary. But I believe these principles can translate if processes and cost structures are adapted to accommodate them.

I can say from experience that this way of working is initially unnerving. But with it comes liberation: from the burden of having to know all the answers yourselves, from the fear of back-tracking and from the pressure that you're only as good as your first, informed, guess.