In fast moving industries, strategy is becoming leaner and more iterative. Strategy can’t predict, let alone control the future – it’s a hypothesis about how to succeed, but the actual path forward must adapt to change and disruption continuously. Rather than a detailed plan that inevitably decays as soon as it’s written, a “minimum viable strategy” addresses only the foundations: purpose, values, and a handful of priorities. The execution of the strategy is a continuous process of sensing and responding to change, involving the whole workforce.
The Agile method speaks of developing what’s called a “minimum viable product” to gather rapid market feedback. We’ve applied this idea to strategy formation and execution – but with a twist. The minimum viable strategy breaks down into two main buckets: the long term core DNA that doesn’t/shouldn’t change much over time, and the short-term focus that supports prioritization and resource allocation. You could think of them as complementary – Who you Be and What you Do.
Purpose: Why does your organization exist? This is a long-term proposition, never fully reached. A direction, not an endpoint. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That covers a lot of territory, and defines the sandbox for many shorter-term projects, from search engines to driverless cars.
Values: Values are the guardrails that define what you and your team will always do, or never do, how you will make decisions under stress. Too many organizations think of values only as ethical principles. Too many are hackneyed phrases that don’t reflect how decisions actually get made. The best values link ethics with business design values – what to make, how to make it, who to sell it to. Apple has used statements like “Simplify. Perfect. Delight.” For Google, “Don’t be Evil” is packed with many meanings including creating an unbiased experience for the user.
Measurable Short Term Vision: Vision is vivid description of a particular point in the future, an immediate compass heading on the long-term journey. How far in the future? A 5-year plan is just too long anymore. Some technology organizations won’t go longer than one year at a time, with quarterly re-synching sessions. The best prototype for Visions is still John F. Kennedy’s statement of May 1961: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Specific, measurable, time-bound, a bold commitment – because success or failure would be obvious. And, the mother of all stretch goals – at the time, no one knew exactly how to achieve it.
Themes: In various strategy methods, these could be called Priorities, Objectives, BHAGs, etc. We like to call these “Themes” – the term used in both Balanced Scorecard and the Scaled Agile Framework. Whatever you call them, these are the major areas of the business you’ve decided to prioritize and pay attention to during the next planning horizon. Themes are the key to chunking strategy into a flexible, achievable portfolio of strategic initiatives and individual goals. These, in turn can be reviewed and revised more frequently.
Scorecard: Each theme has a minimum number of measures that the entire organization focuses on. These metrics serve as the goalposts, the standards you will use to determine how well you’ve succeeded, or what you’ve learned if you’ve fallen short. A good company-wide scorecard is balanced – it includes results and metrics that measure learning, productive outputs, customer value and financial performance.
What ISN'T in the strategy???
Today’s need for fast feedback, course correction, and rapid product iterations means that strategy CAN’T be about filling in all the details. Commitment of resources to strategic initiatives, new products and services, and team-level objectives needs to be nimble. Agile organizations review and rebalance these resource allocations quarterly, if not monthly – within the bounds of the longer-term strategy.
Besides laying out the general picture, strategy today has to be about building the capacity to sense and respond to change, without knowing what that change will look like. This is about building a culture, and work processes, that welcome change, learn from failure, and move on quickly.