Your New Strategy Begins with Why

30 Jun Your New Strategy Begins with Why

By Matthew M. Thomas, COO / Senior Design Partner at Design Group International

© 2017

Article 1:

A few years ago, I worked with an organizational leader who was upset because he and his company had just finished a strategic planning process, and then an issue arose that challenged the entire strategy they had just worked on over a three-year period. “We don’t have the time and money to start over now,” he said. “What do we need to do?”

I suggested to him that the main fundamentals of his strategy were still sound, but that he and his board would need to consider a way to do ongoing strategy adjustments along the way. Eventually, he shed his initial disappointment and frustration and started building in smaller, less intensive strategic moves, allowing the next steps to emerge. He ended up leading an organization that, far from throwing out its big strategic process, further clarified and lived into it, and became agiler to respond to challenges as leaders accepted change as part of organizational life.

At its best, strategy development is iterative. Each time we work through the process, our strategy gains clarity and definition. Those of us who are intuitive leaders often see strategy as something that leaps out in front of us, at least partially formed: we just KNOW what the next steps are. Intuited strategies still have to be communicated and understood by others, and often the first real iterations of a strategy are explanatory.

The best iterations of strategy start with Why. Starting with Why gives us the opportunity to infuse purpose into everything we do. It creates mission, and helps us focus. When we start with the What, instead, we can often get ourselves off track chasing goals that may or may not have anything to do with our core purpose. When we start with the How, we can tend to move quickly from strategy into procedural detail, which tends to derail us from thinking about the whole.

Several management systems (developed by Toyota, and now spread elsewhere) invite leaders to ask 5 Whys of any particular problem to get to root causes. This is a useful investigative technique in solving problems, since it allows for symptoms to be probed for underlying situations, which then can be examined to see whether those underlying situations themselves have something beneath them. In many cases, these tend toward technical solutions.

When developing strategy, however, we often encounter challenges that are very real, very complex, and only partly technical. Strategies often emerge from vision or the need to adapt to a new situation or environment. Vision and adaptation make asking Why even more important than in technical situations – since often the Who, the What, and the How emerge and develop as leaders live in to strategy, rather than being fully formed from the start. This makes having clear purpose all the more essential, since leaders will have to measure activities against that strategic purpose.

There are a variety of tools to start getting at our Strategic Why in addition to the “5 Whys” method. The process of developing mission, values, and beliefs statements all force us to get at our Why in one way or another. Adaptive strategies often grow out of the Whys of SWOT and PESTLE analyses. Vision statement development done right can help us see Why we see the world the way we do, which iterates back to values and beliefs.

So whether we are starting from scratch, or already have a strategy in place, starting each iteration with Why will give us focus and help us keep our strategic actions and goals connected to purpose – leading to a more productive and healthy organization, work environment, and leadership team. What is your Why?


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