When talking strategy, don’t forget scope

Often when taking an organisation through a strategic planning exercise, a not-inconsiderable amount of time is spent defining what “strategy” is.  Invariably you get 12 perceptions of what strategy is in any room, and what I’ve come to realise that attempting to find a perfect explanation is a fools errand as there is no one explanation for what strategy is.  Arguments I’ve come across go around what is “strategic”, and what is “operational” and usually these are arguments that make very little progress.  Personally, I couldn’t care less about distinctions such as what makes a “corporate”, or “operational”, or “communications”, or “innovation”, or “social media” strategy or what’s tactical, or operational (as opposed to operations, which are day to day processes) because making these distinctions doesn’t improve the quality of strategic planning.

Where I think organisations fail when planning or “strategizing” is that they do not take the time to define the scope of the strategic activity, that is: where are the boundaries of the plan.  When you take time to agree upon this scope at the front of the process, all questions of “isn’t this operational”, “isn’t this tactics” go out the window, it’s either in scope, or out of scope and shouldn’t be included.  For example your “corporate strategy”, without defined scope could cover a range of activities from: everything (literally) the organisation does for the next 5 years, to a simple competitive advantage statement.  However, beginning planning with a statement is much more clear:

“our corporate strategy outlines for the next 3 years: the regions that we will operate in, the businesses that we will field, the competitive advantages that we are going to pursue in these, and the corporate and financial structures we are going to put in place to support these activities”

A statement such as this makes that planning process much more clear.  Nobody going into a planning event given the above scope is going to talk about CRM platforms, or what web content strategy should be pursued, or what projects are currently running in product development (maybe that’s a little utopian). Defining scope up front will hopefully improve focus, allowing for the right decisions to be made at the right levels in the organisation, which in my mind is always a good thing.  I don’t know if this is the ultimate answer (which might be begging a question), but I’ve never seen a scope statement at the start of a strategic plan, however I have seen a lot of (senior) people confused by their own organisation’s strategic plan.

So: when building your strategic plan, define the planning scope first.

Some credit for opening my eyes to scope goes to @nilofer and her great book “The New How” (Amazon Link)

Photo by David Kjelkerud (CC2.0)