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Building organisation strategy on sand

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Written by John Berry on 31st January 2024.0

4 min read

birmingham-museums-trust-5EUh-tq31eA-unsplashIt’s become ‘normal’ for entrepreneurs, leaders, managers, and gurus to construct the four ‘pillars’ of strategy: vision, mission, aims, and values. The four trite statements. Phrases that sound so learned yet say so little. Perhaps better referred to as the four horsemen - like their New Testament counterparts foretelling failure.

Unachievable dreams

Vision statements are typically unachievable dreams – “…an equal World…”.
Missions say what the organisation is about, “…to make a positive difference…”. Aims are big, often vague objectives. And values are end states that management hope its people will uphold like justice, loyalty, and honesty, even if its directors won’t!

It’s laudable to have such communicable phrases to bandy around, though few stand critical scrutiny.

So, what’s it all built on.

Built on sand

Typically, nothing. Statement building like this is done in a workshop, often with a brand focus. It’s about asking, “what are we about”, “what do we want to achieve”, and “what values do we want to promote”. All ‘we’.

Strategising like this is doomed.

It’s management and consultants talking about what ‘we’ want to achieve. It’s not about ‘them’, the beneficiaries, the customers, the stakeholders. And as a result, it is strategy built on sand.

All organisations – commercial firms, third sector organisations, or central or local government - need to go back a step or two.

Start with needs and problems

The starting point must always be needs and problems. What needs do the customers and beneficiaries have? If it’s a charity, perhaps it’s a bed for the night for the homeless. If it’s satellite spectrum coordination, it’s controlled interference for the world’s satellite operators. There’s generally a problem to be solved, like too few houses for those of limited means, or aggressive arguments in plenary UN discussions in the fight for national advantage between world countries. Some needs and problems are simple. Some are huge and complex.

Establishing the stakeholder needs and the problem to be solved are key in foundation-building. Omit this, and the mission is built on sand.

And the next bit is fundamental – before jumping to the ‘we’ and the mission.

What phenomenon (or phenomena) is the organisation going to exploit?

Exploiting phenomena

If the organisation does something, there will be an effect. Here’s an analogy with technology. A particular form of diode junction, through which current is passed, will emit energy. This phenomenon can be in exploited many ways by varying the junction structure. We know one common product that exploits this – the modern LED light bulb.

Now we’re in the foundations. We’re driving the piles into the sand. Get the phenomenon (or phenomena) right, and the rest stands solidly on top.

In animal welfare, the stray canine population of a town can be controlled by catching, neutering, and releasing dogs. The effect is that dog nuisance is minimised.

In satellite frequency coordination, academic research has revealed how interference can be modelled in modern communications links using high-speed computers.

Both are examples of phenomena to be exploited.

Start at the beginning

Whilst there’s more to strategising, and to building strong strategic foundations, the essence is to work hard to establish the needs and the problem to be solved. Remembering that in the commercial world, needs and problems might have roots in emotions like greed and FOMO (fear of missing out). And then to determine the phenomenon or phenomena that can be exploited to meet those needs and solve that problem.

If there are no needs, or no problem, there’s nothing to be done. And if there’s no phenomenon, there’s no means by which needs can be met and problem addressed.

Jumping immediately to the four horsemen - vision, mission, aims, and values – assumes all before. The organisation will then forever ‘float’ on those assumptions. Building on those assumptions starts with the question, “what do we want”. It’s the wrong question and the wrong place to start and builds strategy on sand.

Basic questions

Strategy begins with the most basic questions.

What are the needs of our chosen customers or beneficiaries, and other stakeholders? And what problem do they have that we think we can solve? Good strategy builders work from there.