Recently I’ve noticed several consulting firms promoting accelerated strategy development methodologies with names like ‘Rapid Strategy’ and ‘Competitive Advantage in 3 Days’. They follow a similar format:

  • 2-3 day executive workshop
  • Start with defining a long term vision
  • Then derive implications for each area of the business
  • Then set objectives
  • Then define initiatives and accountabilities for all the objectives
  • Finally, agree a communication plan

There isn’t much to object to with this in terms of process. It’s standard strategy formulation and execution. There is always value in getting the senior team together to discuss strategy and if the meeting is well prepared and facilitated then it can produce useful results.

However, the problem with this kind of approach is time. It is only possible to allocate a small amount of time to each item on the agenda. As a result, even with the best preparation and facilitation, discussions tend to be superficial. Contentious points are taken offline in the interest of sticking to the schedule. Flipcharts are completed and an output is produced. The meeting finishes with a sense that the consultant corralled participants into an output that’s logical but not very original. No-one really owns or is excited by it.

This is the kind of strategy process that McKinsey has spoken about:

“It’s easy to make the creation of strategy a rigid, box-checking exercise. Appealing as a formula-driven approach might be, it ignores the truth that strategy creation is a journey—and an inherently messy one at that. Proprietary insights are hard to come by. Shaping keen insights into good strategies requires deep interpersonal engagement and debate from senior executives, as well as the ability to deal with ambiguity in charged and often stressful circumstances. When would-be strategists overlook these dynamics, they cover the essentials in name only. Consequently, they miss opportunities and threats, or create great paper strategies that remain unfinished in practice.”

It’s tempting to think that strategy can be accelerated when there are so many demands on executive’s time. Consultants know that too, which is why they promise a fast approach will work (even though their main eye is on implementation support).

The truth is that strategy takes time. It requires substantial and sustained intellectual engagement from executives to consider the facts and issues, share perspectives, debate the alternatives, iterate and arrive at a strategic framework that is bespoke and has the ownership of everyone involved. 

In contrast to the rapid approaches, ‘slow strategy’ might involve the following features:

  • An executive team member (not an external consultant) leading the process
  • A small strategy team responsible for building the content base, comprising one senior manager and one junior manager from different parts of the business, dedicated for 50% over three months
  • Analytical support from finance department
  • 12-week process including 4 x 4-hour executive strategy dialogues:
    • 1. Issues
    • 2. Options
    • 3. Choice
    • 4. Translation
  • Two 90-minute interviews with each executive, during steps 1 and 2
  • 45-minute interviews with team leaders in all functions and departments
  • Summary report after each strategy dialogue
  • Messaging platform to support informal sharing of content and ideas
  • External interviews with a mixture of customers/clients, strategic partners, technology suppliers, industry associates and commentators

The key is high quality content throughout the process combined with time for quality dialogue, synthesis and iteration.

Tools are less important – SWOT, profit/share analysis, stakeholder analysis, key issues, etc. continue to work well as a framework and provide the basis for insight creation.