Part 2: Conducting Business
When a business is starting up, founders largely focus on priorities like the revenue model, value proposition, and competitive differentiators. It’s easy to overlook factors that are not strictly financial—you can get away with skipping a well-articulated mission statement, a defined and achievable vision for the future, or crystalizing and espousing organizational values. When there’s practically no staff to communicate this to, what’s the point? The dangers of ignoring these components for too long only become apparent at a certain stage in the organization’s growth, a critical mass when the organism becomes self-aware and begins asking questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” This is when determining mission, vision, and values is critically important to establishing and communicating an organizational identity.
Hierarchical Planning & Action
The vision is a great starting point, an aspirational, declarative, and definitive statement about what the group is meant to achieve as a whole. From that single, unifying statement, each department, discipline, or functional group within the organization should be able to break down and describe their own imperatives by which to support the vision. This consecutive “breaking down” into component parts is the essence of large-scale strategic planning: start with the big audacious goals, break them down into more manageable pieces, rinse and repeat until you have sufficiently actionable tasks at hand. Sometimes this can be done in just a few layers of hierarchy, sometimes this is a very time-intensive exercise—it all depends on your group and your goals.
As you go deeper into the hierarchy from strategic to specific actions, you answer the question of “how” with increasing exactitude. Want to accomplish X? Specify how you’ll do it with Y. But how do we accomplish Y? Take it down another level to Z. This method is applied recursively until you have reached a point of granularity at which it is clear exactly what work can immediately be done. Conversely, if you rise back up to the surface level with each step back up the chain, you answer the question “why” with greater scope. This is precisely what makes the activity strategic: being able to tie small, immediate tasks to larger, longer-range goals and strategies.
Figure. Strategic Hierarchy and the Why/How Relationship
For example, let’s examine Twitter’s Mission Statement:
“To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
How might a department head or a team lead break this down into strategic imperatives? A useful method is by writing statements that begin with “By…” Perhaps if asked how to achieve Twitter’s mission, a technology lead would answer, “By providing the technical resources and infrastructure upon which information can be meaningfully constructed and shared.” And maybe a creative lead would offer, “By designing an environment in which users are not just comfortable, but eager to imagine, create, and socialize.” And lastly, a marketing lead might say, “By attracting new users, retaining existing ones, and growing the size of the community and the diversity of its content.”
Granted, these are all home-grown examples, but they illustrate how you would go about breaking down the first layer of the strategic hierarchy, the mission or vision that answers the question of “why” by beginning a statement with “to…”, while simultaneously building things up to answer the question of “how” by beginning a statement with “by…”.
It’s a lot simpler written out, so again let’s consider the Twitter example:
For each subset (1.1-1.3), you would break out subsequent subsets (1.1.x-1.3.x), by continuing to satisfy the question of “how” by beginning statements with “by…” in an increasingly specific manner. For example:
…and so on. Where to draw the line, who should be involved, at what point the plan is ready to begin, identifying key performance indicators by which success can be measured, how long it will all take—all of these questions will depend on an infinitude of variables specific to your organization. The point is not to do it perfectly out of the gate—or ever, for that matter—the point is to get started, broach the subject, take the first step in thinking about the distant future, remove the blinders, and begin transforming the collective mentality.
Communication & Delivery
A vision, a strategy, and a plan are worthless if they do not produce results. Well, maybe not entirely worthless if they prompt much-needed discussion or contemplation, or set the foundation for another attempt down the road, but much less practical without objective outcomes. There are two key steps that must not be skipped once the draft of the plan is ready for initiation: 1) communication and 2) accountability.
Communication is key. Generating broader awareness and deeper understanding, as well as achieving strong buy-in across the entire organization concerning the aspirational vision, audacious long-term goals, and hierarchy of activities that support those goals, is as much an imperative as anything else. Properly preparing presentational materials, organizing meetings goals/agendas/participants/leads, assembling group charters, and assembling company memos are just starting points. Communication must be continuous and conversational, and values and imperatives should be reflected not just verbally but in social behaviors and in social and cultural artifacts as well. The job of communicating is never complete. While it may be easier to handle this aspect of strategic management at a smaller organization, it is no less important.
Accountability is achieved through monitoring, measurement, and management. From the day you decide to begin an effort like this, always have in the back of your mind “How will we prove success?” This should be a repeating motif throughout the process. Measures must be clear and empirical, and monitoring systems must be inherent in all efforts. This is especially important for strategic management because a lot of the activity will internally focused, meaning non-client-billable—a death sentence for most initiatives. But if you can put measures in place that, over time, are able to objectively demonstrate and quantify things like increases in efficiency, reduction of waste, or minimization of duplicate or unnecessary effort, the process will have a leg to stand on when compared with more conventional revenue-generating activity. At all times be prepared to make a strong financial justification because it is not always (or even often) obvious.
Try it. Use these guidelines as a starting point and create your version of strategic planning and management. Do some additional research, try existing methodologies, approaches, and templates to cover as much ground as you can as quickly as possible, but make them your own and adjust them to fit your organization’s unique complexion. And if you lose the time, the energy, or the support needed to see it through, take a break and try again some time later. I wager you will learn from the mere attempt and it will spark a yearning among your peers for deeper purpose in their work and a desire for stronger connectedness between the organization and the individuals of which it is composed.
Upon your first glimpse of an orchestrated organization, you’ll wonder how you ever worked without it.