Archive for December, 2010

Strategy 101: Making Great Choices

December 16, 2010

If Chicago is your destination…what’s the best route to get there?

Part of the answer depends on where you are now and what resources you have. Creating great strategy requires a series of practical and coherent choices.

If you have plenty of time, modest resources and like to travel by train, then Amtrak might be your best option from Battle Creek. If your timeline is tight, you’ve got a reliable car and live in Detroit, then I-94 could be a realistic choice. You could take a train or drive from Los Angeles. But, to attend a meeting in Chicago tomorrow morning from California means   neither of those choices for transport is best. They’re not strategic.

 Where Are We Now?

One of the most important factors in making choices that will get you to Chicago is knowledge about the departure city – or current location. This step can’t be skipped because any assumptions about it introduce significant risks for a poor choice. If you are planning significant education reform in your school district or revising economic development plans, there must be a deep understanding of the current status. It’s highly unlikely you will make optimal choices if you don’t know your starting place. Thorough and unvarnished determinations of here and now are critical inputs to other steps in strategy development. Skillful market analysis, benchmarking and related processes can be critical to informing decisions that affect your strategic plans.

 Recall that while departure cities and resources varied, the desired result (Chicago) didn’t. It was clearly specified.  Very few plausible or even feasible choices can be made if the current status and desired result are indeterminate. Specificity supports success in these matters. While it’s possible (and wise) to test the viability of any given result with different combinations of resources and strategy, it’s essential to be clear about both before any final choices are made. Together, the current status and intended results act as “tent stakes” for your strategies.

 Conditions Count

What works under what conditions is part of what you need to know to make the choices that yield great strategy. Knowledge about your organization’s past performance (via evaluation) can be very helpful at this point. And, information about how others have accomplished similar work can bring value. You also need to know about resources. Your options for getting to Chicago on a $200 travel budget are different from an allocation of $1,400. Choices change again when you have 24 hrs or 5 days.

Strategy is the configuration of factors to create choices which can secure your intended result. Choice selection should rely on evidence and distinctive capabilities. Understanding your implementation strengths and weaknesses should influence your range of options. If you don’t have a driver’s license then car travel isn’t precluded but might be more difficult than Greyhound. A realistic appraisal of capabilities is an important criteria for “grading” and ranking choices. Coherence is also part of the recipe in strategy because the relative alignment among factors affects success.

 Strategy and Consequence

While strategies are essential to effective work in any sector there is far more attention to them in the private sector because without great strategy (and execution), the consequence is a failed enterprise. In the rough and tumble clear-cut review of revenues to expenses, either margin is generated or not.  However, in the nonprofit sector, organizations can be buoyed by enthusiasm for a great purpose. The costs of the enterprise are subsidized and their organization development struggles are sometimes framed as simply a lack of resources when what’s missing is great strategy. People in love with a wonderful mission can overlook strategy because of commitment or affiliation with a cause.

The press of full calendars, lots of meetings and random activities are not synonymous with strategy. Don’t confuse busy with strategic. Organizations paralyzed by indecision or those unwilling to make choices have a tough time with strategy. Those who swim in a highly political or largely unaccountable milieu have no need for them. In these contexts, the measures for progress have much to do with the dynamics of power – not performance.

While not simple to develop, strategies are essential. They reflect thoughtful, careful, tough choices that are directly connected to results.


Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

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