Five Times to Say ‘No’ to Strategy – and One Time to Say ‘Yes.’

Five Times to Say ‘No’ to Strategy – and One Time to Say ‘Yes.’

Today, Ian Patterson continues is Five Days Delivering Digital Transformation series with a topic near and dear to my heart. A topic that transcends digital and gets at the core of business. Day 4 is the day someone on the team asks, “So, what’s our strategy?” I think Ian’s answer might surprise you.

So let’s join him as he shows up for work on Day 4.





I’m using the fourth post in this series to talk about that one stage in every business cycle. The time when we stop and look at each other asking, “What’s the strategy?” or “Maybe we need a new strategy?” or (if you’re unlucky enough) “Who the hell came up with this poor excuse for a ‘strategy’?” It’s at times like these, especially if you’re knee deep delivering something, that the mere mention of a new strategy can fill you with dread.

With this in mind I set myself a challenge to consider if there is ever a good time to say no to new strategy.

First of all, lets settle on a definition for the word ‘strategy’, only because for some people the word can have a negative association, representing uncomfortable change, top-down dictatorial domination, enforced working and controlled measurement criteria. Basically – ‘the plan with which to manage you by’. In my experience it’s one of the most misunderstood and misused words in business (aside from ‘velocity’, ‘engagement’ and a few others).



Even worse, consultants often feed this negative connotation, sometimes suggesting a strategy for everything. Want to create a cleaning roster? You need a strategy for that! Want to manage your social accounts better? You need a strategy for that! Want to promote your products? You need a… you get the idea. Strategy that sells itself. Strategy is one of those things everyone asks for and few want to deliver, unless you’re are being paid handsomely for the privilege.

In my world, strategy starts with accepting where you are now, and aiming for where you want to be. The ‘how you get there’ is the strategy part. Everything else I type after this point is just noise, but words like ‘objectives’, ‘targets’, ‘KPIs’, ‘frameworks’, ‘guide rails’ and ‘governance’ fit. These are the reasons, why or what – but surely it’s easy… “I just need a plan to guide how I get there” The compass if you’re lost, the light in the dark etc. etc.


thinking no saying yes

Now for the interesting part – could there ever be a time when you simply should say no to strategy? I believe so, and here are some examples:

  • You already have a perfectly good plan. It’s in our nature to want to innovate and improve. So it’s not surprising that people shout for new strategy. However, this maybe an indicator of other issues, such as poor leadership or misdirection. Not a need for a whole new A-Z master plan. One obvious thing I try to get across to business owners is not to deviate too far from their core. A totally new strategy should be rare. Usually, and even in the face of radical change such as that brought on by the internet and digital, its better to evolve a business strategy to flex for the future. Not hack-it-up and confuse the hell out of everyone in the process.
  • You don’t have buy-in. Some of you reading this will already understand what I’m going to say. If you don’t have support to deliver basic projects, then recommending strategy is going to be next to impossible. If you operate in a complex business, with layers of politics and powerful characters, then the new strategy-sell can be more effort than it’s worth, until you fix key relationships first. So, before you waste your time ‘putting it all out there’ and getting zip return, consider if it’s the right time to suggest a new strategic direction.
  • You’re knee deep in the ‘do’. Sometimes, you are so far down the line that finishing what you started is simply more important than stepping back and considering the bigger picture. I’m sure this example is less popular, but consider that a strategy forged 6 or 12 months ago was important then. The actions you took from that time meant something, and you made promises. If you put the breaks on now, you risk delivery and, in some cases you could repeat the cycle and get trapping in a perpetual, reactive loop. If your reputation is on the line, people are relying on you, perhaps you are weeks away from the end-game? This is a perfectly good time to consider if a new strategy is even worth the head-space.
  • You’re being forced into it. Those shouts for change can ring in a leaders ear at night. Occasionally a new strategy creeps on to the agenda for the wrong reasons. To justify a position. To burn though some budget. To make the right sounds. These are the times we all need a reality check. You’ll never get that from your agency. They want to help you burn the cash quick, make you (and them) look good and won’t stop your inner strategy junky.
  • Your team isn’t willing or able. There could be many reasons why a team isn’t ready to implement your new strategy. The business has just announced a merger or acquisition, your team is new, your team hasn’t got the skills or experience to embark on the journey you want to take them on? Timing is everything, and too few managers thing past the planning.

That’s just five examples, and I could have shared more if I’m honest.



Now I’d like to end with an example of well-timed strategy. With an example of one time when saying yes to strategy allowed us to make better decisions about how to get from present state to future.

Whilst working on a large re-platforming project, Greg and I set a strategic direction before we scoped requests for vendor responses. We knew what we wanted to achieve for the client, based off various interviews, research, technology investigations and consulting sessions. In doing this, the direction of travel was explicitly clear. With a keen eye on the prize, we considered all options with a completely open mind. Despite the client (and the project) being sizable, it just so happened that a lightweight (non-enterprise) technology platform turned out to be the right solution to meet the need.

I put this down to having a firm and fixed strategy that allowed us to consider even the most unlikely of solutions – that just so happened to be right. Without a vision for your desired end-game, how can you confidently consider all options? How can you explore all alternatives? How can you experiment with your business and innovate?

This is a great example of one time saying yes to strategy makes perfect sense — when having a clear strategy allows you to be confident the choices you make serve the future of the business better than the choices you don’t.

If you’re new to Ian’s series of guest posts, be sure to catch up on all Five Days Delivering Digital Transformation — and stay tuned for Day 5 coming soon.

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