Refine your strategy document
Strategy documents have become the mules of the corporate world.
Like mules, which can carry cargo equivalent to around 20% of their body weight for more than a dozen miles, strategy statements are often tasked with taking on super heavy loads. Too many now include the mission statement, purpose statement, a list of enduring cultural values and commitments to various stakeholders, and even core business goals.
The accumulation of information has increased over the past two years as businesses are called upon to tackle many societal ills as they chart a course into the post-pandemic future. This challenges the vital effort to reduce complexity so that all employees can stay focused on answering the most fundamental business questions: Where are we going? How are we going to get there? How does my work directly contribute to these goals?
It’s time to declutter strategy documents. And my suggestion for doing that is to create two lists: what’s going to change and what’s not going to change.
Let’s start with what won’t change. These elements should not be included in the strategy document. This category includes all the immutable truths that are part of an organization’s narrative about itself: purpose and mission statements, its commitment to certain values and priorities, its promises to various stakeholders.
Any items on the priority list that begin with the words “Continue to…” are obvious candidates for the list of what won’t change. If, for example, attracting and retaining world-class talent has always been a priority, and always will be, that should not be in the strategy document.
Once all of these ideas are in their proper place – on the website or on a slide in a strategy game, with all the appropriate cues about their importance – the strategy discussion is freed up to become a real strategy document.
Ideally, the new document includes the four elements of a simple and effective framework that Dinesh Paliwal, the former CEO of audio entertainment company Harman International Industries, shared with me:
- a concrete summary of the result you are trying to achieve
- the three or four levers you need to pull to achieve this goal
- the headwinds that must be overcome to achieve this goal
- a dashboard to measure progress.
A key word in this context is results. I find that one word can lead to massive shifts in strategy discussions, moving them away from prioritieswhich are more amorphous and often belong to the section what is not going to change.
The mission should never be tinkered with. You spoil the mission at your peril,” Sulzberger told me. “Tradition must be constantly questioned.”
In the 18 years that I have spent at New York Times, I directly observed the importance of separating what will change from what will not change. In 2013, AG Sulzberger – now the newspaper’s publisher but then editor-in-chief – recruited me into a team that studied how the newsroom could contribute to the transformation the company was trying to achieve in response to the disruption of its traditional business by the Internet. model.
We spent months researching and writing the journal’s ‘Innovation Report’, which described the editorial challenges in no uncertain terms. They included a siled culture and an overemphasis on legacy practices that focused on print rather than digital readers.
After the report was published, there was, unsurprisingly, a fair amount of concern within the newsroom that all this change would threaten the Timelong history of maintaining high journalistic standards.
But in traveling internal meetings to discuss the report and answer questions, Sulzberger used the formula posed above: identify what won’t change to calm concerns, then focus on what will change. “The most important thing you need to understand in order to change a company or change a company’s culture is what’s not going to change. The reason is that if everything is to be gained, if you can literally change anything in a business, then the business has no purpose,” Sulzberger told me when I interviewed him about the key leadership lessons he learned during that time.
“For an institution to change, it must separate mission from tradition,” he added. “Mission should never be tinkered with. You spoil the mission at your peril. Tradition must be constantly questioned.
Sulzberger has used this distinction to help clarify discussions about the impact of transformation on the Timehis culture. But I’ve found that simply spelling out what will change and what won’t change is useful in many different contexts, especially for crafting clear strategy documents.
So when you review your organization’s strategy document, ask yourself if it clearly indicates what will change and what will not change. If not, maybe it’s time to split it in half and lighten the load of each section.