Jon Ayre
Jon Ayre Strategic Advisory Practice Lead

Our Thinking Thu 12th January, 2023

The work is the strategy, the strategy is the work

If the work you care about and prioritise isn’t delivering at least one of your strategic goals, then what you have isn’t a strategy. It’s just an aspiration. If you want to know what the real strategy is, look at the work. 

Corporate body language

I’m sometimes invited to help develop strategies for clients, but more often than not the request is really to help make the strategy happen. Sometimes this is proactive; change is needed to meet a new challenge, and savvy leaders are looking for the most effective ways to engage people in the strategic direction. Sometimes it’s reactive; the strategy has been in place for a while, but progress is slow or non-existent. The status quo hangs on stubbornly while the strategy is gathering dust on a shelf.

To address this, the first thing I do is assess that strategy by looking at two things. 

Firstly, I look at the goals, objectives and values of the organisation. These are the things most leaders will show you if you ask them to describe their strategy. It’s the thing they’ll create when they want to set a direction for their company. At this point, I’m not planning to question the strategy. That’s not why I’ve been engaged. All I’m trying to do is understand the stated intent.

Secondly, I look at the existing portfolio of work. Not on paper, but with the teams doing the work. I look at the initiatives in flight, the prioritisation and the effort allocated to each. This doesn’t just tell me about the status quo. It tells me about the real strategy. The things the leaders actually care about. The delivery teams are rarely pursuing these initiatives despite the leaders. They’re pursuing them because of the leaders.

This is “corporate body language”, and it’s why Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

The quote is familiar enough to have become a cliche, but I’d suggest it’s slightly misleading. In my opinion, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast. It’s more a case that many leaders are in denial about what their true strategy really is.

Actions speak louder than words

It’s the leaders who decide what gets done. It is they who define the priorities. If the teams under them aren’t working on tasks that make the written strategy happen, then that isn’t the strategy at all. The real strategy is defined by the work in progress.

When this disconnect happens, communicating the future strategy won’t fix the problem. In fact, it can make the problem even worse. The people doing the real work get pulled in two directions. Firstly they’ll desperately try to understand and enact the communicated strategy. Secondly, they’ll be working hard to please the stakeholders and leaders by satisfying the immediate demands. 

If the two don’t align, paralysis sets in and either nothing gets done, or worse still it gets repeatedly done and then undone. Any sense of clear, meaningful purpose is lost and motivation evaporates. 

This is the worst possible outcome. It’s better to have no strategy and simply react to events than to have a paper based strategy that isn’t reflected in the work. If you are going to have a strategy, then the work is a fundamental part of that strategy. Everything you do as a leader should align to that strategy. In other words, you need to make sure your “corporate body language” matches what you’re saying.

Change the work, change the world

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with true strategy that makes a difference. If that’s you, then you already know that a strategy is much more than just a mission statement and the goals and objectives that go with it. A strategy includes the approach to be taken, and the methods of execution. A strategy isn’t real until it manifests itself in actual changes to the portfolio of work. Conversely, and maybe even more importantly, a strategy isn’t real until it reflects the work.

So, returning to the original request at the start of this post, how do you make the strategy happen? The answer, contrary to popular belief, isn’t just communication. The answer is collaboration. You need to get together with the people doing the work, and collaborate with them to make the strategy and the work match. To do this, both will have to change. 

This is challenging to do and that’s why people tend to avoid it. On one hand, some of the aspirational elements of the strategy might not survive the process. On the other hand, work that people have invested serious personal time into might have to be abandoned. It’s a potentially painful process, but it’s worth it. If you can work together on this and reach consensus, what you then have is a strategy that’s happening.

And one final point. This isn’t something you do once, or even infrequently. This is a regular activity. As the work progresses, discoveries will be made, lessons will be learned and the world will change. This process of alignment needs to happen all the time. It needs to become a core part of your ways of working.

If you can do this then culture won’t eat your strategy for breakfast, because your strategy will be the culture.

Luckily, I’ve previously written a blog post about an approach that does exactly this. It’s called continuous evolution and you can read more about it here:

Continuous Evolution, Part 1: An agile strategy for an unpredictable world