Eight shifts that will take your strategy into high gear

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Chris BradleyMartin Hirt, and Sven Smit for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Developing a great strategy starts with changing the dynamics in your strategy room. Here’s how.

Many strategy planning processes begin with a memo like the one below. Such missives lead managers to spend months gathering inputs, mining data, scanning the marketplace for opportunities and threats, and formulating responses. In the strategy meetings that follow, the CEO leads discussions, executives jockey for resources, and a strategy emerges that confidently projects future growth. The budget is set—and then nothing much happens.

So much activity, so little to show for it. Our book, Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick (Wiley, February 2018), explores in depth the social dynamics that undermine strategic dialogue and breed incrementalism. It also underscores the real, and very challenging, odds of crafting strategies that will lead to dramatic performance improvement. For example, over a decade, only 8 percent of companies manage to jump from the middle of the pack—the roughly 60 percent of the world’s largest corporations that barely eke out any economic profit—to the top quintile, where almost all the economic profit accrues. Underpinning many of those successful strategies, our research shows, are big moves such as dramatic resource reallocation, disciplined M&A, and radical productivity improvement.

We summarized many of those core findings in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article. What we did not explore in depth there were the practical steps executive teams can take to catalyze big, trajectory-bending moves while mitigating the social side of strategy arising from corporate politics, individual incentives, and human biases. Our research and experience suggest that eight specific shifts can dramatically improve the quality of your strategic dialogue, the choices you make, and the business outcomes you experience. These are moves that you can start implementing Monday morning. Together, the eight shifts will enable you to change what is happening in your strategy room—and eradicate memos like the one above.

1. From annual planning to strategy as a journey

Messy, fast-changing strategic uncertainties abound in today’s business environment. The yearly planning cycle and the linear world of three- to five-year plans are a poor fit with these dynamic realities.1Instead, you need a rolling plan that you can update as needed.

In our experience, the best way to create such a plan is to hold regular strategy conversations with your top team, perhaps as a fixed part of your monthly management meeting. To make those check-ins productive, you should maintain a “live” list of the most important strategic issues, a roster of planned big moves, and a pipeline of initiatives for executing them. At each meeting, executives can update one another on the state of the market, the expected impact on the business of major initiatives underway, and whether it appears that the company’s planned actions remain sufficient to move the performance needle. In this way, the strategy process becomes a journey of regularly checking assumptions, verifying whether the strategy needs refreshment, and exploring whether the context has changed so much that an entirely new strategy is necessary.

To grasp what this process looks like in action, consider the experience of a global bank whose competitive context dramatically changed following the financial crisis. The CEO realized that both the bank’s strategy and its approach to refining the strategy over time as conditions changed needed revamping. He instituted biweekly meetings with the heads of the three major lines of business to identify new sources of growth. After making a set of “no regrets” moves (such as exiting some noncore businesses and focusing on balance-sheet optimization), the bank’s strategy council devoted subsequent meetings to confronting decisions whose timing and sequencing demanded close evaluation of market conditions. The top team defined these choices as “issues to be resolved,” regularly reviewed them, and developed a process for surfacing, framing, and prioritizing the most time-sensitive strategic challenges. In doing so, the team not only jump-started its new strategy but launched an ongoing journey to refine it continually.

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Chris Bradley is a partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office, Martin Hirt is a senior partner in the Greater China office, and Sven Smit is a senior partner in the Amsterdam office. This article is adapted from their book, Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick: People, Probabilities, and Big Moves to Beat the Odds (Wiley, February 2018).

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