Mastering the building blocks of strategy

Mastedring

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Chris Bradley, Angus Dawson, and Antoine Montard 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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Increase your likelihood of developing effective strategies through an approach that’s thorough, action-oriented, and comfortable with debate and ambiguity.

Left unchecked, market forces continually conspire to deplete profits. Powerful business strategies can counteract those tendencies, but good strategy is difficult to formulate. Indeed, the latest McKinsey research (see “The strategic yardstick you can’t afford to ignore.”) finds that a very small number of companies create most economic profit. The research also shows that a significant number of good companies outperform even in so-called bad industries, where the average economic profit is less than the market average.

How do they do it? In other words, where do powerful strategies come from? Sometimes it’s luck, or good timing, or a stroke of inspiration. In our experience, it’s also possible to load the dice in favor of developing good strategies by focusing on the core building blocks that often get overlooked. One is the need to gain agreement—before creating strategy—on the essential decisions and the criteria for making them. Another is to ensure that the company is prepared and willing to act on a strategy once it is adopted. Too much of what passes for strategy development, we find, consists of hurried efforts that skip one or more of the essentials. The resulting strategies are often flawed from the start.

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The building blocks of strategy help companies make strategic choices and carry them through to operational reality.

One central building block is deep insight into the starting position of the company: where and why it creates—or destroys—value (diagnose). Executives also need a point of view on how the future may unfold (forecast). By combining insights into a company’s starting position with a perspective on the future, the company can develop and explore alternative ways to win (search) and ultimately decide which alternative to pursue (choose). With the strategy selected, the company needs to create an action plan and reallocate resources to deliver it (commit).

These five core building blocks are book-ended by two others. One is an initial block (frame) to ensure that the team properly identifies and agrees to both the questions asked and the decisions made as the strategy is developed. The final block (evolve) is dedicated to the constant monitoring and refreshing of the strategy as conditions change and new information becomes available.

To some extent, the building blocks simply represent a thorough list of activities that all good strategists perform. And while all are important and should be included in the creation of strategy, slavishly following this or any other framework won’t bring success. Depending on the situation, some blocks will be more critical than others and therefore require more attention (see sidebar, “Re-create, recommit, and refresh”).

That’s why taking some time to frame issues at the outset is so important. When strategists do so, they are better able to identify the real choices and constraints facing their organizations and to see which building blocks are likely to matter most given the situation at hand. Unfortunately, many executives feel that taking the time to frame strategy choices thoughtfully and to decide where to focus strategy-development efforts is a luxury they don’t have.

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Don’t leave the strategy unfinished.

In conversations with senior executives, we occasionally hear some version of this saying: “I’d rather have a good strategy and great execution than vice versa.” We believe that this attitude reflects confusion about what great strategy is. Such a strategy creates a path for action and is inherently incomplete without it. Yet many companies fail to get the conditions for successful implementation right, and fully two-thirds of the executives in our survey admit that their companies struggle with the issue.

It’s a crucial struggle. No strategy, however brilliant, can be implemented successfully unless the people who have the most important jobs know what they need to do differently, understand how and why they should do it, and have the necessary resources. An added challenge, of course, is that strategic choices often involve big changes over long, three- to five-year time frames.

Finishing a strategy, therefore, requires creating tangible, proximate goals that connect to the longer-term strategy. It’s easy to create a high-level list of next steps and things to do differently on Monday morning. It’s much harder to roll back the future and connect it to the present so that people understand what they need to do differently and actually do it.

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Creating strategy in today’s environment of complexity, ever-changing priorities, and conflicting agendas is a daunting task. Yet when senior executives invest the time and effort to develop a more thorough, thoughtful approach to strategy, they not only increase the odds of building a winning business but also often enjoy a positive spin-off: the gifts of simplicity and focus, as well as the conviction to get things done.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Chris Bradley is a principal in McKinsey’s Sydney office, where Angus Dawsonis a director and Antoine Montard is a senior expert.

The authors wish to thank Matthew Chapman, Pia Mortensen, and Victoria Newman for their contributions to the development of this article.

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