Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

Strategy Is Not A Plan

April 13, 2014


An Italian historian, diplomat, philosopher and author, Niccolo Machiavelli was influential  during the Renaissance. He is considered the founder of modern political science and well known for The Prince, a book about unscrupulous politicians. Machiavellianism is most often associated with strategies founded on deceit and psychological manipulation. While these strategies offer many politicos inspiration, other leaders offer more positive, ethical examples.

Strategy Generates Power

Regretfully, because of overuse and ubiquitous application, the word “strategy” has lost meaning. Lawrence Freedman’s new book, Strategy: A History, suggests strategy employs whatever resources are available to achieve the best outcome in situations that are both dynamic and contested. He suggests strategy generates power. Perhaps we too often mistake strategy as a simple way to get to a clear and final result.

Instead, Freedman counsels that strategy is simply a thoughtful means to get from one stage to another. Each new stage has its own challenges, risks, assets and potential. Strategy needs to be devised, and revised as circumstances evolve. Strategy is not synonymous with a plan. Plans support forward movement and actions, but they may or may not be strategic. Even so, high-quality implementation of a strategic plan – one built on choice points that considered alternatives – can be a significant challenge.

Strategy Development

Certainly both strategic processes and strategic thinking are essential in managing and leading. Don Knauss, CEO, Clorox Company says he learned strategy development from the Marine Corps. The acronym SMEAC provides a framework: situation, mission, execution, administration and communication. These five factors  require attention and deliberation.

As a leader, trust-building is an intentional strategy in the culture he promotes. Knauss said in a recent interview that “the less you use the power you’ve been given, the more authority people will give you…It starts with integrity…You get things done much more quickly when people trust you.”

Evidence, Facts & Results

Personal lives, government, organizations and programs all need strategy. Whether you are losing weight, staying married, providing healthcare, managing a “conflict” in a foreign country or improving education – your chances at success increase if there’s a strategy. Better still if it’s evidence- and fact-based.

Winston Churchill’s insight is relevant, too. He said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Slaying Goliath

March 2, 2014


David, a shepherd boy, killed Goliath with a stone slung at his exposed forehead. He won the battle against all expectations. His victory relied on great strategy and skills.

David was a slinger. His weapon was a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long length of rope. Slingers were part of ancient armies. These warriors used a rock or lead ball hurled by a sling at their enemies. Slinging required extraordinary skills honed by extensive practice.

With considerable courage, using the advantages of speed and maneuverability, David ran directly at Goliath in his attack. David hit the one point of the giant’s vulnerability, knocked him unconscious, then killed Goliath by his own sword.

The outcome of this battle challenges common assumptions about power. We assume, in error, that big and strong always wins. But, it is possible for speed and surprise coupled with passionate intent to prevail. David’s example provides a two-step recipe: the right strategies with capable execution.

  • What assumptions do we hold about the Goliath we face this week?
  • What studied attention have we given to strategy development?
  • Can we skillfully implement  optimal choices?

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Strategic Camps

August 15, 2013

Great strategy is key to creating public or private value.

It helps us with fundamental decisions and actions that shape what any organization is, does and its rationale. Strategy supports results in both the private and social sectors.

Recently, an influential client wanted better strategy to more effectively distribute hundreds of millions in capital. As a small part of our assignment, we helped them reflect on their current strategy development process.

The graphic below, based on analysis by leaders at Booz & Company, maps the history of strategy. This landscape is informed over time by more than a dozen strategy “giants,” experts like Deming, Hamel, Porter, Kim, and Zook.


It shows four general camps of thought regarding strategy: adaptation, position, execution and concentration. Each has strengths and challenges. They represent an evolution in thought. The x-axis represents strategy authors. The y-axis is a time orientation focus.

In a practical exercise, we asked each senior executive to identify which quadrant they relied on most to prepare strategy for their program plans and associated budgets. The scatter of dots offered fodder for an important conversation. It supported questions, like:

  • What rationale informs the choice of your “primary” camp?
  • Where would others place their orientation to strategy development?
  • Why is there variation among the camps?
  • What are the strengths and limits of camp features for your context?
  • Should the organization act from the same camp? Why or why not?

As you consider improvements, understanding your current strategy development process is an important step. The historical evolution of camps can certainly inform a  hybrid. Given emerging and powerful factors like data, technology and innovation, there’s no question future camps are forming now.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Avoid Strategy Sabotage

October 22, 2012

A primary challenge in strategy development is anticipating the future – correctly. It’s a tall order. Strategy creates public and private value. It’s central to every organization and team.

Determining the actions most likely to secure your intended results employs strategic planning. Creating strategy, for a program or entire organization, generally requires a series of explicit steps. While a routine function, the process of strategy development offers plenty of opportunity for error.

In this list, I’ve noted the most common “sins.” Consider these as you guard against missteps and improve the quality of your strategy development.

1. Failure to know where you are now. Clarity about your current situation is essential if you are pointing towards a new target. Strategy has everything to do with decisions about the optimal route for the outcome you intend. If you don’t know the current situation then you have no good data on how to create forward action. Shaky ground isn’t equal to a solid foundation – so it’s vital to get this part right.

2. Difficulty in detecting patterns. Your “read” of the context and forecast for the future is important to analysis, interpretation and application. Seeing patterns and anticipating new ones are vital to strategy development. Testing whether others “see” things the same or different and knowing why is a good idea.

3. Lack of choice points. A clear specification of issues and their perceived implications are vital in strategy development. Framing both the challenges which impede progress and the context which will catalyze motion are critical to decisions about forward actions.

4. Unwillingness to acknowledge bias. We all have opinions and perspectives based on prior experience and training. How deeply these are held and whether we can accommodate and explore new mental models affects the discussions and review of strategy. Being aware of bias can mitigate it.

5. Absence of actionable measures. A few and the right measures are important as touchstones for determining progress. To inform decisions or actions, measurement must be part of any strategy. It provides feedback data to confirm existing direction and to indicate necessary course corrections. Winston Churchill said it.” However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

6. Reluctance to review capacity. It’s possible to desire a new outcome, but the potential for achieving it relies heavily on what assets your program or organization has in hand for execution. Do you have the skillful talent integral to the work ahead as well along with the financial resources and time to make results a real possibility? An “internal audit” will surface both needs and assumptions about organization/team capacity that are key to strategy success.

7. Inadequate engagement. Who participates in strategy development matters a lot. It’s also vital to the subsequent socialization and implementation of strategy. Be sure dissent and minority opinions are aired to “kick” strategy. Careful consideration should be given to who participates and when in your process.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

10 Good Questions on Strategy

July 30, 2012

We all face external factors that change fast, frequently and unpredictably. Regardless of sector, work is intensely dynamic. Are your strategy development and related planning processes responsive enough?

Re-tool and Refine

Strategy marshals the resources and actions that enable an organization to secure intended results. Strategy is crucial to the decisions that guide any program or organization. More and more, experts suggest the effort on strategy should equal that spent on operations. Getting strategy “right” matters a lot.

Analysis, Inclusion, Speed

Old routines, inadequate sensing, biased inputs, erroneous assumptions, poor timing, delays and other complexities in strategy development can severely limit program and organizational potential. Creating a clear, disciplined process for strategy that considers diagnosis to commitment, execution and assessment is fundamental. Better strategy and strategic management values analysis, inclusion and speed.

Strategy Development

Here are ten good questions to use as you retool strategy to improve performance:

  • What outcomes define success for your organization?
  • Who holds responsibility for strategy?
  • What are your key issues, critical decisions, data and uncertainties?
  •  What framework exists for colleagues to inform, develop, implement and revise strategy?
  • How are strategic priorities named and resources allocated?
  • What internal communications are used to effectively express strategy and related plans?
  • How are cross-organizational projects handled?
  • Are savvy, fast decisions made through clear processes to support strategy?
  • How are directors/trustees and partners involved in the development and execution of strategy?
  • How is the implementation of strategy and related plans tracked?

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

The Size and Speed of Change

May 24, 2011


Recently, a professor and a marketing consultant, suggested creating a $300 house. They punted it up publicly. The response has been overwhelming. Their target could transform the lives of millions of desperately poor children and families across the globe. If it happens – it is a breakthrough innovation.

This goal challenges what’s feasible, alters expectations and prompts innovation. These are vital levers for big, fast change. Name the intended result, assemble the case, articulate the implications. Then, gather the knowledge, skills, insights, experience, enthusiasm and possibilities for strategy and execution.

 Progress & Pace

Reflect for a moment on two dimensions of change – scale and time. A continuum of scale could cover polar ends: from none (simply preserving  the status quo) to boldly disruptive. A range for time can span from instant to perpetuity. What’s a “fair” expectation for progress and pace?

An insulated and isolated organization (or community) may not make much progress year after year. The adjacent possible is severely oppressed and any change comes grudgingly.  Even incremental, minor movement may be difficult. Although essential to growth and vitality, substantial change won’t happen until there are new people with different training, experience, expectations and habits. Moreover, disruptive change doesn’t occur until there’s a sudden tip point, often the result of a power shift.

 The Best Attitude

“Let’s go slow to go fast” is commonly said in organizations that must improve. This can translate to “I’m risk averse” or let’s quietly move the goal posts. Alternatively, it  may mean there needs to be more knowledge, skills and trust to do the work ahead. Sometimes it is appropriate – sometimes not. If for-profit organizations don’t change fast – it’s certain they will fail. Current and emerging marketplace competitors ensure that. Although far less sensitive to market forces, non-profits must adapt to perform, too.

Many organizations affect internal culture by clearly describing expected attitudes. For example, a “humility and a hunger to learn” is one of several Kellogg Company leadership values.  The San Diego Food Bank operates with an “acute sense of urgency.” ConAgra identifies simplicity, accountability and collaboration as key internal principles. Nestle wants a “willingness to learn” commitment among their employees. All of these declarations signal an environment which supports change.

 Target & Timing

If nearly anything is possible: What’s your stretch goal? What’s the deadline? Perhaps a 28% return on investment or no domestic violence for one month. Maybe, in six months, it’s a $25 toilet or no drunk driving in your county. By 2014, what about a 60% reduction in teen pregnancy, creating a $1,000 car, or every high school graduate in your town will be college-ready.

Thought leadership can be an essential prompt for the size and speed of change. We know most people are deeply motivated by satisfaction and results. By specifying an audacious goal and deadline, expectations for scale and pace are set. Why not start with these?

 –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 an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Intrigued? Tap this link for more information on a $300 house.

Human Bias Sways Strategy

February 10, 2011

Do you and your colleagues routinely test strategy quality?

It’s worth doing. The better the strategy, the more likely results.

I recently read about “Powerpoint Engineering” and laughed out loud. The authors describe it as a proclamation something will occur – and (the presumption) it does. It quickly skips past any viability test. In effect, general constructs of plausibility, feasibility and choice are overlooked for an aspirational declaration. This kind of engineering means the thinking and practices associated with great strategy are obscured or unattended.

Sometimes leaders substitute belief in their “noble cause“ for strategy. Unnecessarily, this lags the performance management knowledge we have from experience and research in all sectors. Identifying what works under what conditions can often be accomplished through a relatively easy Internet search. Be sure you understand the implications of application transfer. Then, and always, kick the strategy tires!

Biases Are Common
The influences of human bias can be a substantial challenge in strategy development. Although mostly unintended, be conscious of what people bring to the table. What can be great strengths outside of decisions in our work can be hazards inside your organization. Common attitudes and behaviors that can derail your best intentions for strategies that yield results include these six offenses.
Overoptimism: the tendency to exaggerate reasons to hope and believe our own marketing.
Anchoring: the connection of what we value to an arbitrary choice.
Risk aversion: a failure to stretch far enough and avoiding downside loss.
Confirmation bias: too much emphasis and reliance on our own opinions.
Herding: finding support and comfort in group-think.
Hero Bias: giving merit based only on who proposes an idea or option.

Inference can be another feature of bias in both attribution errors and in what is known as survivorship bias. Attribution errors assign success to the wrong factors. So, if cheese melts too fast when you’re cooking don’t conclude the cheese is at fault. (An overheated grill may be the culprit.)Survivorship bias is about history. It means that the storyteller has a version…and there are other versions. Those not present or who died have one, too. Listening to just survivors means you miss parts of the story.

Culture, Practices & Tools
Minimizing bias should be on your checklist for strategy quality. Routinely developing multiple hypotheses about your work and a variety of solutions is good practice. Typically, people identify strategy and gather facts to support the choice. Fostering an environment with colleagues who feel free to critique and even oppose these choices can be a really valuable part of a learning culture. It can be tackled by employing objective criteria and by a nimble mind that counters the choices made with the possibility of being wrong.

Another way to improve your strategy is to consider the frameworks, tools and approaches that generate strategies. What are yours? Which work best and why in your sector and marketplace? Proficiency with these tools can be an important part of your internal organization development. Simply shared understanding and language about their use is important action step. Knowing their features, limitations and strengths matters a lot.

Vision not Declaration
Aspirations are a critical part of creating change. Reaching high and far to cite a vision can be an important part of helping others see possibilities. It is essential to leading. Creating ways to secure a “new possible” is central to managing. And, testing strategy is an essential management task. Be sure you and those you work with avoid Powerpoint Engineering.

Beware, in strategy development, human bias can be a Trojan Horse.

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

In Praise of the “Datavore*”

January 18, 2011

* [dey-tuh -vohr, dat-uh -vohr]def 1. -noun. One who devours data for decisions.
Hunches or gut-feel are great but to accomplish ambitious agendas we need data. It is like oxygen.The teams, organizations, boards, colleagues and clients we work with need it.

Whether promoting or defending your cause it’s important to understand and use data in your work. Data provides confidence in description and measurement. Measuring and managing go hand in hand. To pursue and secure performance, it’s important to both understand and use data in decisions. Data serves (at least) three critical functions that matter hugely in your workplace: (1) to set direction, (2) to monitor and manage adaptation, (3) to define impact.

Direction and Description
Descriptive data profiles your key challenges or need, capacity, the environment and trends. Inputs on these factors advance strategy formulation especially if you seek differentiation or market niche. In any sector, data helps you understand your target markets with precision. It helps to solve the “what works under what conditions” puzzle. Data also provides reconnaissance on competitors, indicates progress and specifies results.

Whether you manage a program, function or an entire organization measuring is integral because it offers vital feedback. Monitoring your program or organization status is best done via something other than whim or fancy. While intuition is valuable – it can be bolstered or discarded with facts. Data provides a compass reading. If you know where you are, it’s far easier to correct, revise or redirect to get where you want to go.

Well-informed Judgments
Although too quickly associated only with educational testing or personnel reviews – evaluation has a vast range of potential use and contributions. Valid and credible evaluation relies heavily on data. Effective managers and leaders make evaluative assessments constantly.

Evaluation is the intentional use of information to support a relative judgment. It can be used as a vital gauge for your most critical choices. Capable managers must be able specify an evaluation system. Any system starts with information needs, users and appropriate indicators. Be sure your evaluation approach includes both formative and summative aspects. Formative focuses real-time on your processes, actions and operations. Summative evaluation refers to the status of outcomes or results. Collectively, over time, these comprise impact.

Friend not Foe
The original Latin noun for data means “something given.” While most people aren’t as delighted as I am when the new edition of Pocket World in Figures (The Economist) arrives — working on your “data digestion” will only improve your management acumen. Your work as a manager and leader requires powerful, viable tools and techniques. Data is far more often a friend than foe. The best advice? Fall in love with data.

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

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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