Practical Tips for Writing a Strategy

Introduction

When you are tasked with writing a strategy for your organisation it can be quite daunting at first. What follows is intended as a practical approach to getting you started. At Tek Tonic we provide advice on writing Business Strategies, IT Strategies, ILT/e-Learning Strategies, Information Systems Strategies and Teaching and Learning Strategies but I have tried to write this in such a way that it would be useful to a person writing any strategy paper. There are different approaches to strategy writing and no ‘right’ way to do it. What follows is a series of tips, advice and suggestions, which we have found helpful over the years. I hope you find it useful.
The purpose of a strategy
A strategy is an expression of an organisation wide agreement about the way forward. The process of consulting over it, discussing it, drafting it and agreeing it helps to develop a shared vision of where you are going. A strategy, once ratified,  becomes an official document of your institution and therefore places an obligation upon your colleagues to support its objectives. Once you know where you are going and have ‘buy in’ from across the organisation you have every chance of success. If you want to get things done then writing a strategy might be a good way to get started.
Continuous improvement
Ideally, strategy writing should be a collective effort across your college/organisation rather than a specific task assigned to one individual. Inevitably, pressure of time and external requirements often result in a strategy being written up quickly to satisfy a deadline. A better way is to follow a cyclical process of development where you start with reviewing your current position, move on to shaping a vision for the future, draft a strategy to achieve the vision, implement the strategy and finally return to review your position again. This process may take many years but typically will be completed over a three-year timescale.
Identify where you are in the cycle and concentrate on the part of the process you are currently engaged in. One of the most difficult areas is the visioning phase as this involves thinking outside your current organisational culture and contemplating what can become fundamental change. The visioning stage should be informed by best practice in other comparable organisations, recent research and new developments, networking and brainstorming and attendance at conferences and events.
Reviewing where you are can also be a challenge. We work with education providers on this activity by offering self-evaluation tools and activities which help organisations come to an agreed understanding of where they are. This activity also adds an external perspective on your current position. Once you know where you are it is easier to identify the path ahead.
Practical Tips
Meet with as many natural stakeholders as possible. These might be students, employers, staff, managers, parents, customers or volunteers, as well as people from partner agencies. A coherent strategy will support the organisational business plan and mutually support the other organisational strategies e.g. Teaching and Learning, Staff Development, Premises-Estates and Human Resources Strategies etc. The strategies should reference each other, as they will need to form a cohesive approach to achieving the business plan. For example, a new IT system will need to be supported by staff development and the Teaching and Learning Strategy might require support from Premises and Facilities in order to deliver a new course within the curriculum offer, such as room modifications or new builds.
An Action Plan that identifies what will be done, by whom, by when and from which budget, should accompany the strategy. A good way to create an action plan  is to have SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) targets or descriptions of what you are going to do. This is so that you and everyone else is clear about what you are aiming to achieve and will know when you have achieved each element. You might need to estimate completion dates and costs as it is not always possible to be sure how long something will take or cost, however, it is better to make an informed estimate than leave the field blank.
It is good if your strategy is reviewed by a body separate from those tasked with delivering it. The group reviewing the strategy can be identified and specified in the strategy. A timescale describing the review dates can also be included. Over time your strategy will be modified as circumstances change. This might be initiated by the reviewing body or the team delivering the strategy or by your students/customers/users. It is good practice for changes to the strategy to be agreed by the senior management team. (SMT).
A good strategy is one that is understood across the organisation – so a Communication Plan should be part of the strategy initiative.  All staff should know about the main elements of the strategy and why you are doing what you are doing. Ideally students (customers) should be able to inform the strategy. In order to do this they need to know about it and how they can influence it. A culture of openness and dialogue is a characteristic of successful organisations and a good strategy will emerge from listening and responding to many needs and points of view.
Lastly, I would suggest you view as many example strategies as possible, although I would not recommend using another organisation’s strategy.  It is often very useful to see different approaches to the task of strategy formulation. This can give you good ideas and help you to see your own strategy from a different perspective.
Mission and Values
These are the principles you are working to which will define your scope. They describe the way you do things as opposed to the way other organisations do things. It is worth thinking about such constraints so that you are clear about your room for manoeuvre. You also want your strategy to be one that is clearly from your institutional culture. This does not mean it will not change the way you do things but that it will support, rather than hinder, the business plan.
The final strategy should be endorsed by SMT and the Board or Governing Body. The strategy should be dated and specify the period of time it covers and when it is to be reviewed.


Think big
I would suggest you think big and aim high in your strategy-writing efforts. Strategy writing is about steering your organisation so that it can thrive in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century and face the future with confidence. Organisations that are not able to change are not likely to survive very long. Having a view of where you are as an organisation, where you want to be and how you are going to get there is the essence of strategy writing. It is all about how to successfully implement change in an organisation. If this seems ‘pie in the sky’ don’t worry. In my experience you actually achieve more than you expect to, so it is worth being ambitious. It is better to achieve 50% of an ambitious strategy that 90% of a very modest one.
If you would like to find out more about strategic thinking (review, horizon scanning, brainstorming, planning, & implementation) get in touch.
By Martin Sepion

Strategic Management Cycle

A useful way we have found to help organisations plan and think strategically is by using the strategic management lifecycle model.

This involves four main elements:- Strategy formulation, Planning, Implementation, & Review

Strategy Formulation – this is where you define your objectives in broad terms. What you want to achieve, where do you want to be over the medium term. This could be things like ‘we want to have 20% market share in three years time’, a turnover of x per year in 5 years time, x number of members, x number of satisfied customers etc. Whatever your performance metrics are they should be defined here. In the formulation of strategy you want to define your organisational values, niche, ethos. What you stand for what is your mission. These may not have changed but it is useful to reaffirm them to be sure they guide further development. Horizon scanning as it is sometimes called is where you look internally and also externally. What are your competitors and partners doing and how should you respond. What external developments are likely to offer threats or opportunities to you. These might be political, economic, legal, technological etc. In short your organisational strategy should encompass both an internal and external appraisal of the environment you will be operating within over the medium and longer term.

strategic-management-cycle

Brainstorming is where you gather together people from different elements of your organisation to do some blue sky thinking. This is where there are no bad ideas. Hopefully no personal pet projects or interference from office politics. The purpose is to think creatively to come up with ideas to move the organisation forward. These sessions can be extremely productive. We suggest they are facilitated by an external coach or chair.

Planning is where the broader direction defined within the strategy formulation process is built into the organisation governance framework. In other words broad aims are specified into action plans that staff teams can enact. For example if your strategic aim is to increase sales this might be enacted through your action plans through a series of statements such as ‘increase marketing activities through the following media channels’, ‘increase the number of sales people from x to y’, ‘promotion and development of new products via the following events’ etc. So the broad aim to increase sales is supported by some concrete measureable actions within departmental action plans. Planning should translate a top level strategy into actionable activities that your staff can implement. We would suggest the use of action plans and SMART targets for this activity as planning is where the strategy begins to become a reality.

Implementation is where the strategy is enacted. It is where the action plans are given out and the real work happens. During implementation real world problems will arise and will need to be managed. Plans may need to be adapted and modified.

Review is the time when you need to ask where you are and where do you want to be. We suggest getting an external viewpoint on where you are. Review is the phase where you want to see what worked well and what did not work so well. In overall terms did your strategy meet it the objectivers defined at the outset. What did you learn during the process and how will you capture the knowledge for the future.

Continuous Improvement is key to this approach. Once the cycle has been completed it begins again as this process is underpinned by a continuous improvement philosophy. You never rest on your laurels or feel that you have ‘arrived’. The idea is that you are always seeking to improve further and adapt in a changing environment. The timescale of the cycles will vary according to the organisation type and size but is intended to be medium term (2-5 years).

Communication and consultation of your strategy. This is one of the key elements that people often forget or fail to give sufficient prominence to. A strategy that has been written by an individual or a small group is highly unlikely to be successful. A strategy that does not have the support of people from across the organisation is not going to succeed. Any strategic initiative will take your people out of their comfort zones and will challenge them to think differently about what they do. In order to bring people with you you will need to consult and communicate effectively throughout the process. This is not easy but there are some key concepts that will help. The most important is to recognise that your customers/clients, stakeholders and importantly your staff are a huge source of talent which you should be aiming to draw upon.  Do not think of consulting staff as a chore think of it as an opportunity to harvest their ideas and enthusiasm to make your strategy come to life. Pose questions then listen and record their responses. Prompt debate about the best way forward. Create a dynamic atmosphere where all ideas are valued and evaluated against your high level objectives/mission.

By Martin Sepion

Strategic Management for Beginners

When you get your first management role you are likely to be supervising operations. This is a great way to start your management career. It is here that you get a broader picture of what is going on in your organisation and hands on experience of dealing with problems. Dealing with problems is what you are there for. People might be off sick, on training, or annual leave your job here is to keep the process running while maintaining standards during this period where you are short of staff. Finding creative solutions to this situation is where you have the opportunity to shine. You might move staff from activities that can wait for a bit, you might get staff to agree to work extra hours, you might streamline processes along the way. The main thing is you resolve the problem. Operational management is all about sorting out these day to day problems. Being good at sorting out problems depends on your ability to keep your staff and your customers happy. It requires excellent analytical, problem solving and social skills coupled with a firm grasp of the reality on the ground. The better you are at sorting out problems the better a manager you are. However, once you go higher up the management ladder you become more strategic and less operational in your function.

Strategic management is a different challenge from operational management. Managing at this level requires the ability to look longer term and plan for the future. To ensure your organisation is ready to embrace the opportunities that come along rather than react to them. Managing strategically is very difficult if operationally you are in a mess (firefighting). The first challenge, therefore, is to sort out the operational management to enable you to put strategic management into effect.

All good managers need to keep in close touch with what is going on at ground level to be effective strategic managers. There are three ways in which you can know what is going on in your organisation:- the first is to do ‘the thing’ yourself, the second is to listen to the people who are doing ‘the thing’, the last is to receive reports containing data on ‘the thing’. The ‘thing’ here could be your production operation, your sales, your services, your matches (as in sport), your battles (as in war). Clearly each of these means of knowing what is going on has pros and cons, so the best option, if possible, is to gather information from all means. Once you have information you need to analyse it. Your ability to analyse information is important but more important still is the ability to be honest when looking at the evidence. This is where personal traits become more important than management theory or management techniques.

Developing strategy
Developing strategy

Once you have made an honest appraisal of what is going on you need to find a solution that is commensurate with the scale of the problem. This is where you need a good mathematical/analytical approach. When looking at staffing for example, a good rule of thumb is to hire seven staff where your estimate is the need for six posts. This is because staff are not always available due to annual leave, training, sickness, vacancies, jury service etc. In this example the operational manager has the task of keeping the service running when staff are short while the strategic manager has the task of ensuring there are sufficient staffing levels long term. The strategic manager should ensure that a staffing crisis does not occur every couple of weeks. The only reason for a staffing crisis should be very exceptional circumstances. Strategic solutions to a staffing issue could include looking medium term at business trends, projected performance, contingency planning, reviewing staffing levels, reviewing staff skills and cross training, reviewing pay and conditions, reviewing business processes and automation, and reviewing internal communications and intelligence. Once a review or series of reviews have taken place actions should be written up and consulted upon. A strategy should then be put in place to address the issue. Once embedded the new strategy should be reviewed and amended where necessary. It is a good idea to consult as often as possible with customers, other relevant stakeholders and your staff. This process of review, consultation, strategy and action should be tailored in the level of detail according to the size of your operation. If you are a small business this process could be followed without being supported by too much documentation whereas if you are a medium or large organisation this process should be supported by formal documentation and governance procedures.

The examples given here are for staff shortages but this strategic management process can be applied to a wide range of issues such as maintaining quality, controlling costs, developing future products or services, systems failure, and many others.

I hope this very brief overview of strategic management has been useful.

By Martin Sepion

Tek Tonic Tips for People Management

What is an organisation? An institution? A business or a charity? Is it a building, a set of policy documents and strategy papers, a niche in the market or a set of values? It is a group of people. In the 21st century, machines do the doing. People do the creative stuff. Your people define your identity and your place in the world. Everything else is a product of your people.

University of London Staff
University of London Computer Centre Staff

In a technology driven world we can easily get focussed on the every more impressive capacity of our machines but we should be concentrating on our highest value asset – our people. This is why people management is the most important of all management skills. As a manager you should prioritise the whole process of managing your staff above all else. Manage them well and your enterprise will thrive. They will sort out all the other things managers often become bedraggled with.

How to manage people well

Employ managers who have excellent social skills, are genuine, honest and interested in people. They need to be able to recognise and appreciate talents that they themselves may not possess. Put time and effort into the entire staffing process. From team structure, job definition and person specification to recruitment. Induct your staff and support their development throughout their time with you. Give them challenges that stretch them but are within their potential. Support them when it is time for them to move on. The best managers act as tutors and mentors to their staff. Taking responsibility for projects while freeing your workers to contribute their ideas and creativity. Most importantly spend 98% of your time as a manager praising and encouraging versus 2% correcting and criticising your people. Do not ask them to do anything you would not do yourself and lead by example. Stick up for your team, celebrate their achievements and promote their value to the rest of the organisation.

UoL Staff
UoL Staff

Listen to your staff, trust them, and focus your energy as their manager on addressing the challenges to greater performance. If it is lack of time, lack of resources, lack of skills, lack of people your staff will bring these issues to you. As a manager it is your job to find solutions to these problems. Your solutions must be equal to the scale of the problems. If you need ten more people to get your project finished on time and you only provide one you are not doing your job as a manager. If you negotiate a weeks extension to the project and you need 10 you are not doing your job as a manager. The same is true of resources or budgets. You need to be a realist and willing to bring your honest appraisal of requirements up the chain of command. This is where you need courage to be an effective manager.

Stressed people are unproductive whilst a harmonious environment is a hotbed of creativity and productiveness.

These things are not easy but if you follow this approach you will be surprised by the creativity of your staff and the growing capability of your organisation.

By Martin Sepion