Strategy silos, and knowing what leads when

Increasing numbers of people these days have the word “strategist” in their job title — content strategists being only one such role.  When so many functional areas now have a strategy, and strategists responsible for these strategies, it can be confusing what strategy leads when.  It isn’t obvious when your strategy needs to take the lead, or a support role.  Sometimes conflicts arise.

The best way to tame the mess is to understand the blind spots in one’s own strategic focus area, and to work with colleagues to develop a more complete understanding of dependencies between all strategic focus areas.

The rising importance of everything

Strategies have multiplied as organizations realize they have no margin to be surprised by anything.  Change is happening everywhere.  Everything matters, and these things are often inter-related.  Consider of the kinds of strategies that may be in place in an organization:

  • brand strategy, preparing for how the brand will evolve in the future to respond to the changing market environment
  • channel strategy, considering how to prioritize and coordinate between all channels: digital, physical and legacy such as call centers
  • content strategy, dealing with how to develop the right capability to deliver all kinds of content to the right audience that the right time through the right channel in a changing environment
  • customer experience strategy, covering future direction of user experience and design of services across platforms accounting for new technologies and customer sensibilities
  • digital strategy, covering prioritization and coordination of all digital platforms, from digital signage to kiosks to traditional websites
  • marketing strategy, covering future offers and pricing, positioning, and outreach to customer segments, including responding to new trends in advertising
  • mobile strategy, addressing changes in smartphone use and capabilities, tablets, and potentially smart wearable devices
  • product strategy, outlining how the product architecture needs to change, including what new products to introduce
  • social strategy, preparing for how to adapt to changing the social media landscape and obtain more value from social channels

If you are confused about the boundaries between these strategies, you are not alone.  Some sound similar to others, but there is often a good reason to develop strategies for these specific areas, because they focus on different factors and metrics.

Organizational strategies reflect the fluid, complex environments the organization must address.  It’s important to appreciate how the orientation of your strategic focus is distinct compared with others, and accept that there will often be overlap.

The warning signs of strategy silos

Some people responsible for developing a strategic focus have trouble seeing beyond their speciality.  They are beholden to their specialist view of the world, and become “silo strategists.”  Their evangelism becomes preachy, trying to convert others to their perspective, rather than to share knowledge and support others.

As strategies vie for attention, mantras have emerged to communicate the virtue and importance of a particular strategy.  Mantra-tinged discussion is widespread, revealing how strategies often developed in silos, and discussed in isolation from other issues.  Rhetorical mantras, invoked either competitively or categorically, yield little mutual understanding.  We hear competitive sloganeering: “Content is king — NO, Customer is king” or “Mobile first — NO, Content first.”  The internal rallying cries of a team get transformed into external battle cries.  Other times the mantas are more subtle in what they imply: “People aren’t buying a product, they are buying an experience,” or perhaps some sweeping statement like “Word of mouth is the single most important reason people choose a brand.”  The issue is not the truthfulness or truthiness of these mantras, but their completeness.  The attitude of the simple mantra treats everything else as an executional detail that is less important.

When discussing a project with another stakeholder, we may hear the eager silo strategist comment: “Actually, that’s part of [my strategy area].”  Like a modern Narcissus, the silo strategist sees his precious domain in everything, and wants to direct others’ areas of responsibility.  It’s great to make connections with the work others are doing, but it’s important to go further and understand fully what those areas are aiming to accomplish — which will generally be more involved than first realized.

The silo strategist may try to colonize other areas because he considers competing strategies as deficient, or he feels undervalued.  Other times the silo strategist feels set up for failure: he doesn’t feel he’s been given sufficient time or resources to accomplish his goals.  These are often legitimate concerns, but they are rarely best solved by trying to elbow someone else out of the way.

In my experience working on large complex projects over many years, those who are true believers in the value of a strategic approach most often are sincere, enthusiastic people with a passion and desire to realize their goals. They have pride, but feel they don’t get respect.  They become frustrated, and become frustrating, when their vision seems threatened by a lack of buy-in from others, or an unwillingness to prioritize it.

Distinguishing strategies, priorities and readiness

Strategy is about goals, and long term evolution to reach those goals.  Please note I did not say a strategy is a plan.  Colleagues can’t wait for another team’s long term plan — and customers and competitors are not going to pause while that team works on its plan.  By all means they should develop a plan, but they should make sure it’s an agile one that can evolve over time and adapt to new situations.   Too many strategies sound like a waterfall style project plan, with other stakeholders asked to wait until it is their turn to act.

Strategy should not be confused with readiness — the stuff that needs to be completed before other things can be completed.  When the two are confused, strategies can become statements of what one would like to happen when one is ready for it to happen.  Readiness is only partly under one’s direct control: it is subject to the actions of other stakeholders, and the urgency necessitated by external circumstances.  This introduces an important aspect of strategy: the acceptance of constraints, and the ability to address them.

A particular strategic focus may not have articulated key constraints on the realization of its strategy, or revealed hidden assumptions about the actions expected by other areas of responsibility.   It’s important to understand both one’s own assumptions and constraints, and those of other focus areas.   The best way to do that is through conversation with other stakeholders.

Strategy has the potential to change the culture of how things are done, but it’s important not to base a  strategy’s success on changing culture wholesale.  Cultural change is an exhausting long term project, and  short term success with a strategy is necessary to earn credibility.  That involves delivering results not only for one’s own goals, but helping other strategies succeed.

Synchronizing approaches

Influencing other stakeholders — be they colleagues in your organization, or rival contractors supporting a project — is best achieved by working hard to understand what they are trying to accomplish.  The further one goes toward understanding other strategic focus areas, the more one can see:

  • what proposals and responsibilities are overlapping
  • what themes seem similar but are actually different
  • what goals and proposals are complementary
  • what dimensions might be in conflict if not clarified

Even though each specific strategic focus embodies the broader goals of the organization’s overall business strategy, how each focus interacts with all the others often has not been formalized.  As a first step, it can be useful to capture what is known about expectations for each the strategies.

Managing newness

The coordination of different strategies is hard because of the many dimensions of change involved.  External changes in the market, technology or society prompt the need for companies to respond.  Companies plan changes in what they offer to customers through various initiatives, involving new things.   These initiatives offer each functional area or team in a company an opportunity to implement some of the changes they had in mind, as represented in their respective strategies.  Each may hope that a certain initiative is the right opportunity to realize their specific goals, and need to negotiate how to do that with other stakeholders.  At a certain point, it may seem as if there are too many new things being introduced at once, collectively involving too much complexity and risk.

To prevent from feeling overwhelmed, stakeholders need to develop a common framework for understanding.  They should work together to define how different strategic focus areas contribute to the overall success of corporate initiatives.

Clarify the criticality of a strategy for a specific initiative.  Company-wide initiatives involve major new activities, while strategies involve changes to current practices and capabilities.  When are new practices or capabilities required to accomplish a new activity?  For any initiative, it is helpful to agree what strategic changes need to happen to make the initiative a success, and what strategic changes would be desirable.  Each strategy focus offers a range of possible changes and improvements; it is helpful to know the contribution expected from each.    For each new enhancement proposed by a strategic focus area, consider how it will affect the overall initiative:

  • the business contribution (revenue, engagement, etc.) possible from changes implemented by each strategic area, and how important these are to the success of the initiative
  • synergies with other new activities being introduced
  • criticality to success in terms of time to launch, or long term viability
  • the budget and time resources involved
  • the risk involved

Leveraging contributions

Specific focal strategies should describe their expected contribution to two components:

  1. to overall business strategic development (enabling general change)
  2. to specific company-wide initiatives (enabling success for specific initiatives)

Sometimes they can do both these things at once, but more often the emphasis is either on general change or specific initiative contribution.

A multi-prong initiative might mobilize several strategies to realize change.  Suppose a brand wants to introduce a location-based mobile coupon program.  This initiative could reflect ideas from the marketing strategy, the mobile strategy, and content strategy, among others.  In this example, marketing might take the lead requesting the initiative, while the mobile team uses the initiative to evolve the mobile app closer to a long term vision, and content strategy refines the taxonomy architecture to enable aspects of the coupon offer.

A spearhead initiative might involve one strategy driving the implementation of change, but require other areas to adapt.  A rebranding effort might fall in this category.

In other cases, more narrowly focused initiatives need to happen to enable capabilities that will ultimately benefit the realization of other strategies.  The change happens quietly behind the scenes, and no immediate change is required of other areas.   Some types of content strategy work falls in this area.  It may be possible to pilot a change to demonstrate its overall value and benefits to other strategic areas, and to reduce any risks involved.

Enabling collective self management

How different strategies work together entails an ongoing process of negotiation.  Rarely will there be a strategy czar to decide what leads when.

Generic questions, such as whether customer experience strategy is more important than mobile strategy, are not meaningful.  Sometimes mobile strategy will drive a need for changes in customer experience strategy, sometimes the reverse.  Each strategy can produce requirements for changes that others will need to implement.

As awareness of how various strategies relate to each other grows, it is useful to capture this knowledge in an accessible format.  Documenting these interrelationships, and the requirements they create, will help all stakeholders involved be on the same page, and not be surprised by unarticulated requirements and hidden assumptions.  Ideally, a mutual appreciation of each other’s contributions will develop, gained through the systematic consideration of each other’s visions.

Strategy is important as a tool to address change — in a growing number of areas.  In the past organizations prioritized strategic focus, giving special attention to one particular area, then moving on to another area.  Now many areas can be undergoing transformation at once.  When everything is special, everyone involved needs to understand that they are not alone in being special.  That does not diminish the importance of what they working on, or the uniqueness of their contribution.

Strategies in silos cannot work successfully.  It’s time for all people involved with strategy to understand better the strategic perspectives of others with whom they work.

—Michael Andrews