It’s appraisal time at work right now and it’s our custom to seek 360 degree feedback, which is starting to stream in. One recurring theme over the years has been that some of my work is too conceptual or theoretical and this makes it hard to directly implement. I’ve thought long and hard about how to act on this feedback, it’s not easy. Strategy requires that I work on the big picture, not get bogged down in all of the implementation issues; to challenge and inspire people of the need to change, not to give them specific instructions; to unleash the creativity of others, rather than always relying on my own. This blog post seeks to confront the hard realities of working on strategy at my level and with my constraints and to explore the approaches that I’ve adopted over the years to address them.
Before I get started though it’s helpful to understand something about my job, which is defined by the fact that I have lots of influence, but no authority. It’s also important to know that on average I work about 8 hours a week, although I actually do two 16 hour weeks, followed by two weeks off. My job title is Strategy Advisor and I advise a billion dollar end-user computing services business unit in a much larger company.
Not having ‘authority’ might seem like a major impediment for a strategist, that is until I look at the success rate of those who do have authority in my industry. All around me I see an endless stream of pronouncements that never get executed on, projects that go no where, initiatives that ‘wither on the vine’, massive investments in tools and technologies that are often not fully implemented before someone decides to replace them with something ‘better’. In that context authority to execute on ideas doesn’t seem so attractive.
Admittedly at times when I had the authority to execute on my ideas, I did succeed in bringing a lot of them to life, but looking back that life was often short lived. When I moved on to a new role, or the organisation changed, they rarely survived intact. Even when they did ‘survive’ the reality of poorly disciplined execution often meant that there was a significant drift away from my original concept over time.
Looking outside my industry at companies which seem to execute flawlessly on their strategy you find a very different reality below the shiny surface. Take a look at the story of how Apple developed and evolved the iPhone and you see a lot of chaos, desperation, many failed ideas, lots of luck and fortuitous timing. As the iPhone evolved the strategy swapped and changed many times, the company was riddled with politics and infighting, but huge profits helped to cover these up and in the end they muddled through, learning as they went. Even now they aren’t perfect but billions of dollars of profit a year helps cover over the cracks nicely.
So what to do? lots of people ask me this question and my general response is “be patient” but actually I have quite a few strategies, the most important of these is to apply my thinking at multiple levels:
- As a strategic, I work on the big picture, to inspire, to provide frameworks to guide the way that we think, to bring structure to chaos, to provide direction and give people hope
- As a an architect, I try to make sure we think holistically during projects and service execution, to make sure that we are considering the interplay between process, organisation, location, data, application and technology; to recognise that we are dealing with real people with strengths and weaknesses. I spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
- As a manager, I work on improving the way that the business actually works, clarifying accountabilities, shaping processes, keeping projects focused on the business needs, helping people understand their jobs and the challenges they face
- As a technologist, I read about, explore and use a lot of technology so even though my focus is strategy I spend a lot of time positioning and reviewing technology, identifying and solving technical issues, coming up with new product ideas or new ways to use technologies. I also spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
- As a coach, I’ve picked a small number of people who I believe in and who want to be coached in some capacity, that coaching involves a mix of inspiration, support, guidance and challenge. It’s also a great way to introduce some of my own ideas or to nudge them along
- As a maverick, I have a lot of exposure to ‘external’ ideas, I’m not part of the ‘group think’ that exists within the company, I’m also not ambitious or afraid of upsetting people or challenging established ideas, poor quality execution, or scratching below the surface of the myriad of problems that I see every year to reveal the underlying issues
What this means in practice is that there’s rarely a direct causal connection between strategic ideas that I have, and promote, and the execution of those ideas often years later. The reality is that those ideas spread like tendrils throughout the company, some wither and die, lost forever, but many live on. I nudge them along when I get the opportunity, I’m happy for others to present them as their own. Sometimes they take years to really take root. I have to be patient, humble and creative. Regardless of the success of my strategy though I apply that strategic thinking and context in the five other roles and that’s just as useful.
Looking quickly at how I nudge strategic ideas into life:
- I start by evangelising them passionately, which launches them with some chance of success
- I write about them in blog posts, which makes them re-discoverable. Even if every blog post is read by only 20 people, over time that adds up to thousands of little chances to influence
- I nudge them along during the dozens of reviews that I do
- I champion them during the 50+ coaching sessions I do each year
- I use them as a deep repository of knowledge to challenge other ideas that I disagree with
- I use them as examples when people need inspiration or guidance to do something similar of their own which happens most weeks
This all works out quite well, I like to think that I see the influence of my ideas in most directions that I look at work. There’s rarely a causal link, some of what I see might not actually be inspired by me, but I like to think that enough of it is, to give purpose to all the effort. Working an average of 8 hours a week is a challenge, subtract all the administration, company briefings, social chit chat and other distractions and I’m lucky to get 4 hours a week of quality time to create and influence, that’s 1 hour a day! it’s a good job that I have plenty of time to think while I’m walking along the beach, the cliffs or the hills.
As usual I’m writing this blog post in Caffe Nero thanks to an early start. I’m heading to Cleveleys later with my second eldest daughter for brunch and a movie. Cleveleys is one of my favourite spots for doing an hour of relaxed research followed by a long walk. Today’s pic shows the beach in all of it’s glory, ‘decorated’ by an unusual sculpture that’s less than a year old but already looks like it’s been there for thousands of years.