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