The importance of starting out right

Good strategy starts with a clear description of the problem. It doesn’t need to be brief, it needs to be right, writes Andrew Pollard

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Good strategy starts with a clear description of the problem. It doesn’t need to be brief – we are not aiming at a sound bite – it needs to be right. The Charity Commission strategy starts by saying that there are many charities well-loved and funded, “yet when it comes to trust and confidence, the challenges facing charity are considerable”. No mincing of words. The problem is well laid out with context.​

If you asked charity trustees about their problem, you might get a different set of answers about fund-raising, governance, or well-being. But that is not the role of the Charity Commission. It is a regulator, “providing effective regulation with a purpose: to ensure that those we regulate are able to inspire even greater levels of public trust and confidence”.​

Organisations find it tough to get clarity on their exact problem and a template won’t help; they also miss off the landscape. Both sit together. If the problem is “my company looks just like my competitors” then the strategy you adopt might depend on the landscape: who are the competitors, are customers loyal and why, who are the suppliers, what new entrants are likely to disrupt the market and are my customers likely to switch to an alternative?​

The strategy sets out a problem and then sets out an approach. The US defence research unit DARPA is another great example. DARPA says it invests in futuristic weapons research. It is not interested in more accurate rifles or better missiles. Even laser cannons are old hat. DARPA will meet anticipated future military needs by building science-fiction weapons. That isn’t quite what the strategy says, but it is not far off. The DARPA strategy is clear, specific and lays out the direction: it sets out what they do and what they don’t do. They are not going to get dragged in to look at issues in today’s hardware or worry about future procurement. It is more about what weapons will be needed in 2040 and beyond.​

Lastly, a good strategy is execution ready. It does not need a plan, budget, or any of the execution components to be in place, but it must be credible that they could be put in place. Near targets are a very practical way to get started.

TSB Bank believes its “aspiring middle” customers want “brilliant basics” and a “great digital experience”. Their strategy says, “over c. £120 million will be invested to further build on TSB’s digital channels to provide mobile in-app onboarding / sales, as well as investing in the automation of some of the Bank’s branches”. This alone is not enough to give a “great digital experience”. It is a near target, a baby step. But it is execution ready. If the strategy was just to “build on TSB’s digital channels” then there is another layer needed to define where the priority lies.