Seeing the Wood for the Trees aka Strategic Context

When I get called-in to work with SMEs and Start-ups as a trouble-shooter, I invariably get told, in some detail, what they think the problems are. But often, what I am getting told, is what the symptoms of the problems are.

In a way, I need to adopt an approach that is like the diagnostic approach that a doctor needs to undertake to find out the cause of some illness. There is a need to get to the root cause of the problem. Investigating the symptoms is useful, and confirms what they are, but it is not always going to give the solution to the problem.

There is a fine balance between investigating a problem to the extent that it is understood, and what I would call ‘tunnelling’ – digging in too deep and getting lost in the detail.

Once a problem has been understood enough, it’s wise to look up and see what the solution is likely to look like. It gives a much better chance of finding a viable solution and getting people on-board quickly. And looking for the solution needs to be within context: the context of the real Business Strategy.

When I ask, “what is your overall strategy?”, I have sometimes got trite answers such as: “read the documents” or “of what relevance is that?”. The reality is, that in a fast-moving world, any historical ‘strategic’ documentation can be out of date quickly, particularly if it was originally done primarily for ‘marketing’ or investment purposes and has not been updated.

Asking directors and senior managers what their Business Strategy is, can also be very insightful.

One of the main purposes of a Business Strategy is to provide a simple, high level road map of what the company stands for and where it is going.

If the senior management of a company can only refer to and read from documents to relate that strategy, it indicates some potential issues: the strategy is not what they are following, the strategy is too complex to articulate and/ or follow, or it is too detailed to actually be useful as a strategy.

Another factor is the different directions that directors follow. I’ve listened to more than a few directors describe pretty much different strategies – within the same organisations!

Problem solving requires: understanding the problem, understanding the Strategic Context of the problem, and finding the solution(s) within that context.

There’s a great statement I once heard, “don’t just fix the problem right, fix the right problem”.

This diagram shows the umbrella concept of Strategic Context. Focus on what’s underneath the umbrella, not outside of it.

If you don’t know what your strategic umbrella is, how do you know whether your problem is inside it or outside of it?

This may all sound a little complex and long-winded to do. However, it’s far from it: the effort spent in establishing or re-establishing your Strategic Context can be minimal compared to going down one or more irrelevant ‘blind-alleys’ or, in the case of some companies, going out of business.

Another important aspect of having a Business Strategy, is making sure that it is relevant – and good Corporate Governance should ensure that it is kept relevant.

The mind-map shows the areas that are necessary to establish good Strategic Context.


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