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

During your career you’re likely to have seen your company’s strategy depicted as a mountain to be climbed, with a sequence of intermediate milestones marking the way to the goal, or summit.

It’s easy to be sceptical of this metaphor, as it essentially compares business leaders sitting in air-conditioned boardrooms to climbers battling altitude, frostbite and avalanches. However, in this — the third article in my series re-examining common metaphors in business — I’m going to argue that enacting strategy successfully is like mountaineering, only in ways I’d never before appreciated or understood.

Into Thin Air

Figure 1: A classical depiction of strategic transformation as mountain climbing

Since reading various books about mountain climbing, I’ve come to conclude that the issue isn’t necessarily with the metaphor itself, but rather with a basic lack of understanding of how mountains are climbed in real life. Visualising progress as a straight and certain route from the base to the summit is absurd for a number of reasons.

For one, the mountain is constantly changing. There are no direct paths or shortcuts to the summit — just as the most successful strategies are full of unexpected setbacks, obstacles, dead-ends and improvisations. 

Although no two strategies are the same, one aspect reliably reoccurs: they are about trying to achieve something new and valuable. By reaching the strategic goal, the company is transformed, for the better. The most analogous climb in history therefore is the first attempt on the summit of Everest by George Mallory in 1924. The tallest mountain in the world was then known as the ‘Third Pole’, and after failing to reach either the North or South Poles first, the British Empire was determined to claim this victory as their own, to remind the world of their pre-eminence.

When Mallory’s team arrived in the Himalayas, close to nothing was known about the mountain or its environs in the western world. Yet Mallory and his companions intuitively grasped the concept of ‘test and learn’, and before the summit was even attempted, they launched two lengthy reconnaissance missions. The lessons learned from these difficult (even deadly) rehearsals helped them devise new principles that are still followed by mountain climbers to this day. For example, the team pioneered the use of bottled oxygen to mitigate the effects of altitude, helped develop new clothing fabrics, and established a sequence of high camps on the mountainside at which to gradually acclimate.

Mallory’s attempt on Everest has another, more unfortunate similarity with the vast majority of strategic transformations —it failed. Or should I say, it might have failed. The question of whether he was the first to reach the summit of Everest is one of the great unsolved mysteries. When the clouds briefly parted on the morning of the final ascent, Mallory and his climbing partner were spotted less than 800 feet below the peak, climbing confidently. Then the clouds rolled in, and they were never seen alive again.

The Three Decision-Making Zones of Mount Everest

The principles and practice of mountaineering established by Mallory and his team demonstrate how an experimental approach to problem-solving is the best way to achieve transformative, long-term goals. However, the true power of metaphorically associating strategy with mountain climbing was revealed to me by this article, written by a team of academics who’d climbed Everest themselves.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors argue that the three distinct physical zones on Everest relate to optimal patterns of decision-making in successful businesses.

Figure 2: The Three Decision-Making Zones of Everest

Reaching Base Camp

The majority of decisions fall into the first category — the Base Camp — which is a predictable and stable environment, featuring lots of infrastructure, at which a relatively low number of calls need to be made. As such, tried-and-tested processes can be applied with confidence, and decisions reached through consensus.

When you’re at Base Camp…You’re in the realm of Business As Usual (BAU) decision-making, which is typically done by committee. The impacts of your decisions are widespread but incremental, and a single decision can apply for months if not years. At best, your decisions gradually improve things by degree. At worst, you end up creating frozen, stifling and dehumanising bureaucracies.

Navigating the Icefall

When challenges can’t be adequately addressed by Base Camp thinking, they cascade into the second category — the Icefall.

The Icefall on Everest is essentially a glacier moving down the mountain at the speed of 3–4 feet a day. Large gaps (or crevasses) open underfoot quickly and unexpectedly, whilst above towers of ice (or seracs) can collapse without warning. The environment is so unstable only ‘Rule of Thumb’ guidelines apply. When passing through the Icefall, there’s a sharp increase in the number of judgements that need to be made, which shifts the decision-making process from consensus to commitment. In other words, when navigating this part of the mountain ‘the first climber on the rope calls the shots’.

When you’re in the Icefall…You’re using loosely defined ‘pattern fit’ decision-making to keep the strategy moving. You’ll hear such statements as “we only pursue markets that give us a 15% margin or more”, or more simply “we don’t do that here”. These clear (if blunt) rules reduce the noise of unlimited options and help the organisation focus on what’s important. The concept of ‘the first climber on the rope’ works best when organisations are trying to establish a new offering or capability. That is, it’s vital you place your trust in those individuals capable of (dis)proving the value of an opportunity. If you force them to comply with heavy-duty governance, and/or seek consensus from the wider business at every step, they will fail.

The Summit

In certain circumstances, the organisation will need to make decisions in the third category — the Summit (or ‘Death Zone’) — terrain so unfamiliar and bewildering that normal rules no longer apply.

The summit is dangerous for two main reasons. The first is the threat of sudden, deadly blizzards or avalanches that can wipe climbers off the mountain. In the business world, the closest analogy is a significant shock that hits the brand out of nowhere. The massive outage of Facebook’s ecosystem (the day before damaging ‘whistleblower’ testimony) springs to mind, as does the recent controversial attack on free speech at the aptly named Base Camp.

The summit is also dangerous because above 8,000m (Everest is 8849m tall) the air is so thin the body begins to die. Climbers become hypoxic, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and under-nourished. This leads to muddled thinking, with the simplest actions hard if not impossible to complete. In these extreme conditions, all decisions are critical at exactly the same moment as your ability to make them is compromised.

You’re in the Death Zone when… The people within your organisation are burned out. When individuals and teams suffer the ill effects of sustained, chronic work-related stress, they run out of energy, impairing their ability to make good decisions. If burn out becomes endemic, the first priority is to navigate the organisation as quickly as possible out of the Death Zone. The very worst thing to do is to succumb to ‘Summit Fever’ – becoming so narrowly focussed on a strategic goal that you recklessly continue towards the unattainable, at all costs – and with typically disastrous consequences

Coming Down the Mountain

Whilst writing this article, I’ve changed my mind about the link between mountain climbing and strategy. When applied correctly, the metaphor effectively describes iterative, experimental approaches to strategic transformation — and it’s also hugely useful when categorising different approaches to decision-making within organisations.

In these ways, climbing a mountain is a decent metaphor for strategic thinking and the importance of working together to pursue organisational goals. However, in the aftermath of this difficult year, I predict there’ll be a reckoning with what ‘reaching the summit of the mountain’ actually represents in the context of our professional lives. The idea that the best career gains are made by working long hours during the evening and weekend is being openly ridiculed. Instead, many leading organisations are announcing their commitment to rethinking how and where and when their employees work, and governments are introducing legislation on the ‘Right to Disconnect’. 

Put simply, companies that proactively help their colleagues cultivate and sustain a healthy work/life balance will leap ahead of their competition in the post-pandemic world. To behave otherwise would mean risking the loss of their best people in fluid and competitive labour markets. After all, talent is the oxygen that sustains any successful organisation. Trusting and empowering your best people will help your company meet volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity with confidence. Organisations need these capabilities more than ever if they are to reach the roof of the world.

Recently, I was asked to outline the Equal Experts’ solution to one of the most common problems in strategy: how to optimise the time between having an idea and realising value from that idea. 

This blog post is a brief introduction to the process, with each point expanded on in this video.

The good news is that the answer is relatively simple (my talk lasts just over ten minutes) and comprises three steps:

  1. First, you make sure your idea aligns with the strategic priorities of the business. That way you know you’re working towards an outcome that contributes to something meaningful and valuable. 
  2. Then you place “Bets” — acknowledging that your idea at this stage is still full of assumptions and unknowns that need to be proven out. 
  3. Finally, measure progress by regularly taking leading, attributable metrics and sharing them with others. That way, when making decisions, evidence is your guide.

Step One: Ensure your idea is aligned to the strategic priorities of the business

The best way to ensure alignment is to run an OKR session. Once the key goals and outcomes of the organisation have been gathered, plus the measures of progress, the portfolio can be visualised as a “Roadmap Radar” — an example of which is below.

Roadmap Radar

The “Goals” gathered during the OKR session define the coloured sections of the Radar — typically, there are 4–5 of them. They are the long-lived North Star of the organisation, capturing its purpose and values. “Outcomes” are the strategic priorities that align to the overall Goals (the “pizza slices” of the Roadmap Radar), divided into quarterly time horizons. Lastly, there are the “Bets” — the olives on the pizza. Each one of the “blips”’ on the radar represents a time-bound experiment designed to explore the attributable impacts of an intervention.

Step Two: What do we mean when we say “Place Bets”’?

The word “bet” encourages decision-makers to confront how much they are willing to invest in the desired outcome, in terms of people, time, budget (that could be spent elsewhere). It relies on the design of a structured experiment that creates feedback loops, validates the value of an idea, proves out assumptions, and reports on progress towards specific, leading metrics. 

One question stakeholders regularly ask is: how do you decide on how “big”’ to go on a bet? I’ve found this a useful way to guide my thinking – it’s an adaptation of Constable’s Curve and describes the relationship between confidence and fidelity. 

Yellow Brick Road

Recently, a client wanted to add a new product offering to their online store, but to actually create and sell it at-scale would have meant a huge upfront investment, and therefore risk. Instead, they gathered evidence of demand by offering the customer the ability to buy the item online, with those that clicked through receiving a regretful message saying the item in question was temporarily out of stock, and instead invited to consider some alternatives (which did exist in the real world). In this way, the client was able to use evidence to improve their confidence in the idea, without risking time or money on an idea whose value was essentially unknown. 

The challenge is to design experiments that sit on exactly the right spot of the Yellow Brick Road between confidence and fidelity, thereby proving – or disproving – the key assumptions without a disproportionate exposure to risk.

Step 3: Structuring thinking using the Bet Canvas

The best tool for the job of designing effective experiments is the Bet Canvas — illustrated below.

Bet Recycled pizza boxes

The Bet Canvas will typically become covered in next-best actions — but doing them all at once would make it impossible to reliably attribute cause and effect. Instead, you have to decide who will do what now, who will do what next, and who will do what later. Designating primary responsibility for each action allows everyone to know who to ask about what, at any time.

That requires a last tool: the Bet dashboard. 

Bet dashboard

Each week, the person responsible for an action uses the dashboard to report back to their team (and colleagues in the winder business) on what they’ve discovered. Each new thing that you learn helps define the next step — and you’ll notice that the dashboard explicitly acknowledges the assumptions underpinning the experiment. The point here is to ensure your efforts are aimed at gathering enough evidence to reliably say which of your assumptions have been proven right or wrong. Once you’ve emptied out the “Insufficient Evidence” column, you can say with confidence whether you should continue, pivot or stop.

Good luck!

And there you have it — a simple process designed to help you proceed quickly and reliably from idea to value.

If you have any comments or questions about this process, we’d love to hear from you. The slides are available here, my email address is on the final slide of my talk, and/or you should visit our website. And best of luck!