Strategy is one of the most overused yet vaguest terms in business.
But the main struggle with strategy is not just its ambiguous definition. It is actually formulating a strategic plan for an organization — and then bringing it to life.
On average, an alarming 95% of employees are unaware of the exact strategic goals of their company. It comes as no surprise, then, that this can often lead to employee burnout and reduced productivity due to an overlying lack of purpose in their work. After all, how can members of a company find meaning in what they do if they are unsure how they contribute to strategic business aims?
That said, a big challenge for business leaders and managers is ensuring both their strategic planning and its execution is well-communicated and inclusive, and that they guide the actions of each member of the company.
The most complex part of strategy is not its execution. Rather, it’s everything that needs to be done before that — the planning, structuring, and design.
Let’s start with the most important note: a strategy is not a plan. The commonly accepted definition of strategy is as follows:
A business strategy is an outline of the actions and decisions a company plans to take to reach its business goals and objectives.
Most companies are capable of devising a plan to achieve a definite goal through certain actions (or tactics). But a strategy is much more than that. At a higher level, strategy lays out the path that the organization should take by tackling various business questions and finding solutions. So, while a plan is simply a series of steps to follow to achieve an outcome, a strategy identifies the ideal steps to take.
A plan can and should be part of a strategy — but strategy must come before the plan.
Generally, a business strategy considers several key components: differentiation, the market, finances, and operations. Crafting a strategy involves identifying the characteristics of each component within a business and then coming up with tactics — the specific individual steps required to achieve strategic objectives.
Lastly (but most importantly), the key question to be answered via strategy is why. And for leaders, the priority should be to ensure that everyone in the company knows the answer to this question.
The question we’re tackling in this insight is how to unlock the potential for strategic thinking within your team. Whether team members are directly involved in the planning process or not, they should have an understanding of the strategy, the reasoning behind it, and what it aims to achieve.
Ideally, you should think of strategy as the determining factor of how you stand out from the competition. This is something that will guide all your business decisions, so it should be uniquely crafted for your company. There are some general criteria that are applicable to effective strategies.
A strategy should neither be too specific nor too vague. Being at a higher level than a plan, strategy does not tackle just one single goal. For instance, “move offices by the end of the year” is too short-term and doesn’t provide real value for the entire business. Similarly, an unclear goal like “earn more money” doesn’t offer a specific end result, nor does it indicate any actionable steps.
Sometimes, it can even be beneficial to think of what strategy is not rather than what it is (because it’s not always a rigid concept). Strategy is not a one-time, short-term thing. On the contrary — successful businesses often think in terms of five to ten-year strategic plans. Of course, this can evolve and shift over time, but the overarching objectives typically remain the same for that period.
Strategy is also not a single, set statement, such as the company’s mission or vision. It is not a set of values or principles; rather, these guide the organization's strategic course. But they should not be seen as the primary objective!
For more specific guidelines, we like McKinsey’s approach, which suggests four principles of strategic thinking:
As a consultancy, we often conduct business audits for our clients. This helps us identify why things are done in particular ways, what enables them to happen, and how they are relevant to the strategic goals of the business and its clients.
Another way you can replicate an audit for your own business is by experimenting with business blueprinting. This is also a helpful exercise to introduce your business strategy to your team, initiate a discussion, and empower strategic thinking.
Blueprinting helps outline all the fundamental aspects of the business and see how everything aligns. Just like an engineering or architectural blueprint, it acts as a method of outlining the needs and goals of your business and the techniques required to accomplish them — the strategic plan.
Having a blueprint also enables your team to evaluate the current state of the business, as well as attainable goals and expected deadlines. From there, it will help identify realistic strategic initiatives and tactics to reach the desired results.
(Adapted from A Full Guide on Business Blueprinting.)
Essentially, this means conducting a business process analysis for your organization. To be well-prepared, start by tracking, reviewing, and outlining all the existing processes, goals, and plans of your company. This will help to identify what works and what needs to be improved. It is also where you can start crafting and defining the precise vision for your business.
Since the key aim is to revise the current business plan and develop a strategy, you may need to modify existing business processes. Refer back to your outline of all company projects, as well as elements like management and HR structures, finance and accounting, and marketing and sales. Then, evaluate the workflows in each department to see whether they can be improved, and identify the need for any new processes.
Additionally, consider your objectives for company growth and how your business processes contribute to these goals — set KPIs to keep track of performance.
You will need to set deadlines for individual goals to keep everyone on track and working in sync. To ensure that assets and resources are used efficiently, it is also essential to establish a budget — and adhere to it. This should be thoroughly planned, as larger-scale timelines and budgets will need to be set up later on for the overall strategy.
At this stage, you can already outline an initial blueprint draft on paper. This will help visualize the strategic plan and take note of inconsistencies or gaps. Having a draft will also simplify the review and revision processes — you can make edits as issues or changes come up.
Now that you have a working format of the blueprint, you can start to think about how to implement it in practice.
The most practical way to do this is by outlining a separate action plan with the steps required to carry out the strategic plan, as well as the order of execution. This is where you will need the most input from your team: it’s crucial to understand how the blueprint and its implementation will impact them, and how each team member can support the strategic process.
Before finalizing the blueprint, it’s advisable to test new and updated business processes and strategic tactics. This will reveal whether the plan is actionable and generate a helpful feedback loop with your team. Both internal stakeholders and team members can view the strategy from different angles and offer suggestions for improvement.
Finally, after the initial testing phases, you will have some indication of how to modify your business blueprint and whether you can implement these changes in practice. It can also be helpful in providing a clearer idea of what your strategy looks like and identifying a good starting point for its implementation.
You should now be able to evaluate whether your strategic initiative will lead to the transformation you were aiming for. Remember: the strategy should be relevant to your company for a fairly long period of time!
To better track progress and understand whether your company is performing well, you should have set some KPIs while planning the blueprint (as in step 2).
You can ensure that the strategy implementation is on target by regularly communicating with team members, keeping track of the budget, ensuring deadlines are met, and recognizing reached milestones and achievements.
There is no single — or simple — way to unleash strategic thinking in every individual member of your company. Typically, it’s the responsibility of strategists and their teams, as well as C-suite members and managers, to formulate an overall strategy that touches on each aspect of the business.
However, enabling and empowering strategic thinking in employees can enhance the process of strategic planning. By introducing strategic thinking exercises and initiating discussions on company strategy, you will not only get invaluable insights and feedback but also ensure that the company’s strategic objectives are clear to the people driving their execution.
Business blueprinting is an excellent approach to strategy that makes implementation and scaling more manageable and inclusive. It allows companies to identify growth opportunities and improve operations, increase business and staff efficiency, strengthen the organizational structure, and ensure complete team alignment. Ultimately, this enables businesses to be well-positioned to execute their strategy.
But perhaps the most rewarding factor of unlocking the full potential of strategic thinking is giving people meaning and purpose. This can highly improve both the working culture and the quality of work, as it gives a sense of value to every individual and helps them understand why they do their work — to see the contribution they can make. At the end of the day, each member of the company adds a piece of the puzzle for the overarching business strategy.