As we approach the end of 2016, our Managing Director, Richard Coates, reflects on insights we have gained through working with a range of clients across several market sectors and on various business and strategy challenges. We hope this short series of thought provoking blogs helps stimulate some ideas and plans as you look ahead to 2017.

We believe strategy is simply the options and choices you have available to you to reach a desired outcome.  It is by nature a forward looking, potentially ambiguous discipline, and therefore deals with a degree of uncertainty at its core.

The structured and analytical process is designed to help mitigate uncertainty and risk to some extent, although of course, strategy implementation occurs over a period of time in a fluid and dynamic market context.

How do you manage strategy in uncertain times?

Arguably, the combination of Brexit, the recent USA election, forthcoming elections in Europe and economic growth indicators, combined with what seems like accelerated technology developments and changing consumer trends, having coincided to form a highly uncertain backdrop which is likely to be with us for the next two to three years.

How should senior leadership teams in companies respond and navigate these (more) turbulent waters in order to continue to drive profit performance and sustained growth?

The simple response is to increase market tracking and scanning, enhance feedback systems from valuable stakeholders, ensure clarity of strategic aims and rationale, prioritisation of key strategic initiatives and investments, commitment to innovation, and focused implementation and execution with excellent internal engagement.  Whilst at the same time as running the day-to-day business, oh, and also being prepared to move and flex as opportunities and challenges arise.

It’s challenging to get all of these aspects sufficiently focused, aligned and balanced in the real world, in any business. However, we believe it is essential to carve out some time in busy schedules to review the current strategy and future options. Are they fit for purpose now?

The following statement may therefore appear slightly ironic: talking of battle situations, Eisenhower is quoted as saying: “a plan is useless but planning is indispensable”. This is because the military believe, through bitter experience, that the ‘plan’ becomes useless on the first point of contact with the enemy.

Strategy and planning – what’s the difference?

There is a difference between a ‘strategy’ and a ‘plan’. A strategy is directional, with clearly stated aims and desired outcomes; able to accommodate fluidity and respond to changing circumstances.   A plan can be a rigid, set of pre-agreed tasks and deliverables within a timetable, and in a structured set of decision making parameters and controls.

In this context, especially given period of increased uncertainty, ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’ are valuable and can have very tangible outcomes for senior management teams.

Of course, old school set-piece, strategic planning could be just as rigid as a ‘plan’, to quote Eisenhower.

How to approach strategy today

Today businesses and their strategies must be able to flex and adapt. Critical characteristics include, speed, responsiveness and agility. This doesn’t mean chaotic or haphazard, rather a series of clear aims and ambitions, but with a range of choices about how to get to the desired outcomes.

In our view this cannot be achieved by having a traditional approach to strategy, where it is only known and shared in the boardroom. The main elements must be known and shared across the organisation, with functions, teams and individuals all knowing the part that they will play, and critically, how they can feedback what they see happening on the ground.

Adopting a more inquisitive and at the same time critical assessment of what is happening and what may happen that will materially effect the company, will undoubtedly help businesses identify and respond more effectively in uncertain times.

We’d be interested to hear how you address your challenges and issues in strategy development and implementation. And how you plan for uncertain trading conditions. Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.