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May, 02, 2017  |  Mike Rowlands  |  

Elements of Strategy: Agility and Opportunism

Many of our clients are focused on solving complex social or environmental challenges. In this context, and in every competitive arena in business, the best laid plans can be outmoded as soon as they’re written.

Mike Rowlands
Mike is President & CEO at Junxion. He has guided strategy development with early stage ventures, decades old corporations, not-for-profits and charities, and government agencies.

How Do You Respond When the Context Changes?

This is the third in a series of posts about elements of strategy. In the first, we talked about a clear, compelling, actionable and aspirational vision. In the second, we talked about the importance of a clear mission—work that only you can do to bring about ‘the change you seek.’

If you’ve established a grand aspiration (your vision), and defined the work you’ll do to reach it (your mission), what should you do when the inevitable, if unforeseen, challenges and opportunities arise along the way? Sometimes these are minor. Sometimes the assumptions that underlie these central elements of planning are no longer valid. How should you respond?

Simple: Change the Plan.

Well, you didn’t think you were going to consider all the variables and define a masterful, distraction-free, ten-year path did you?!

Okay, I’ll concede that such long range plans may still be viable in well-established, stable industries, like natural resources or banking. After all, it was Shell Oil that invented Scenario Planning, decades ago. 

Agile is good. Whimsy is bad. Be clear on why you're making changes.

But it’s not an appropriate model in rapidly evolving sectors, in today’s entrepreneurial ventures, or for most of our clients, whose work simply must be more responsive to dynamic contexts, where the very nature of the challenge shifts.

So you change the plan…. Does this mean leaders should respond to every fad and trend? Or pursue every opportunity that catches their eye? Absolutely not. That would be whimsy, agile taken to an extreme caricature. Nor does it mean rewriting the plan wholesale. But you do need to have a change mechanism built in to your planning approach.

Leave Space in your Planning Approach for Iteration

Your planning model must allow for ongoing consideration of what’s working, what’s not, what’s changed, and what new opportunities have emerged. There are five central principles to Agile Strategy—an approach that allows for responsiveness and opportunism without sacrificing commitment to the long term vision of the organization or team.

Stay True to the Vision

Call it a ‘BHAG,’ an ‘MTP’ or simply a ‘vision,’ your ultimate aspiration or the grand purpose for your enterprise is unwavering. While the context around your organization shifts and changes, you and everyone else in your organization must ‘keep your eyes on the prize.’ With that consistent ‘north star,’ you can navigate through all sorts of wild seas on your way to success. It’s the vision that will help you decide which opportunities to pursue, and which to leave for others. Like a navigator on a sailing ship, using the stars as his guide, you’ll need to look up once in a while to ensure you’re on the right path. For most organizations, this is a conversation to be had every few years. Between those visioning retreats, just stay the course.

Monitor the Mission

The work that you’re uniquely positioned or skilled to do may be a distinctive contribution today, but as the market evolves, as new competitors emerge, as technology ‘disrupts,’ and as you learn and see new opportunities to serve your vision, your specific mission may evolve. This isn’t a day-to-day conversation, but it’s probably one you should be having every year. Are you still making a valuable contribution? Are you taking full advantage of your team and its capacity and capabilities? Are you making progress toward your vision? These may well be the ‘convening questions’ for your annual offsite.

Develop New Capabilities

If you’ve set a bold and aspirational vision, chances are you’re not fully equipped to achieve it. At least, not yet. So a central element of any plan must be to embed learning and organizational development. Defining and then developing new capabilities within the organization—“working on the business” as Michael Gerber famously put it—is imperative if you’re to evolve in a way that enables you to take advantage of new opportunities, or respond to new competitors. Every healthy organization is a learning organization. Whether through skills development, mergers and acquisitions, or on-boarding of new groups of people with the skills you need, developing new capabilities is vital.

Make Strategy a Management Discipline

This is where the agile rubber hits the road. Rather than strategy being a periodic intervention (the annual retreat, the bi-annual visioning session), the defining tenet of agile strategy is that it’s a discipline of management.

Strategy is no longer a periodic intervention, but a management discipline.

It’s not something left to occasional discussion; it’s a regular practice of those working in the business every day. Does that mean you should be having strategy conversations every day? It certainly doesn’t! Instead, it means you’ll lead the business based on emergent strategic priorities.

You’ll make space every quarter to review what has become urgent and important across the organization, and establish quarterly goals to meet those new opportunities. You’ll consider your established commitments, define what remaining capacity there is to take on new projects or initiatives, you’ll prioritize the most valuable theme to pursue each quarter, and you’ll meet bi-weekly to ensure you’re on track to achieve those priorities.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Organizations thrive only when everyone involved is moving in unison. Clear, consistent communication to members of your team, and to many of your stakeholders is essential if you’re to ensure that agility isn’t viewed as inconsistency. As in so many things, the more open and transparent you can be, the more likely you are to win friends and supporters.

Agility is essential to implementing a plan. Agile Strategy is a structured way to ensure you’re able to respond to new opportunities. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy. Call us if you’d like to schedule an Agile Strategy workshop for your board or leadership team.

Ultimately, you’ll be assessed as a leader based on what your organization achieves. So strategy’s imperative, and implementation is your day-to-day work. But learning on the fly requires you to embed measurement throughout your strategy and planning. That’s what we’ll talk about in the fourth and final post in this series on strategy.