Can strategy drive certainty?

Dr Ian Skinner’s presentation at Greenlight's September event covered key themes about strategy and certainty, focusing on government, megatrends … and asking the question of whether, given the pace of change businesses face, strategy is still useful.


Why is strategy necessary?


Having a strategy doesn’t guarantee success. If you fail to identify and analyse the risks and future scenarios in your planning process, you don’t have a strategy, you have an unrealistic goal that you hope might happen. If your competitors have a better strategy, disaster may also ensue. If you lose sight of the purpose of your company, as happened when Blockbuster succumbed to competition from Netflix, the risk of failure increases even further.


Strategy may also be scuppered if you’re overtaken by events outwith your control; such as Brexit, the Global Financial Crisis, or Climate Change.  Dr Skinner said: “A key part of your planning process must be to consider the implications of major economic, social and environmental change. That entails making a distinction between hard and soft certainties.”


‘Hard’ certainties include factors such as an aging population, rising sea levels, and increased frequency of extreme weather conditions.


‘Soft’ certainties include the increasing obesity of our population. In the UK the Chief Medical Officer has said that obesity should go on the National Risk Register, and it has been described as a ticking economic time bomb. Strategy may be one way to stop the bomb exploding. People in Oklahoma City collectively lost a million pounds in weight over five years after government developed and implemented a strategy to tackle obesity.


Making strategy fit for purpose


Dr Skinner highlighted how some people question whether strategic planning is still relevant in the modern day, where digital disruption, blurring industry boundaries, and the rapid emergence of new competitors all make for a volatile and uncertain business environment. They argue that shifting course on the fly and ‘just-in-time’ decision-making are the new way forward.


In response, Dr Skinner warned that action still needed to be taken in the context of a coherent plan, referencing the sage advice of Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago. “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”


So, the problem isn’t necessarily strategic planning. It’s often the of lack an effective strategic-planning process.


Dr Skinner said: “You absolutely need that long term perspective that looks at the future and considers different scenarios, challenges and opportunities. It’s the opportunity to define, validate, or redefine the vision and direction of the company.


If, then, in military terms, your delivery plan ‘doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy’, you still don’t lose sight of what you are seeking to accomplish and the agility of your response is still informed by your preparation.


Strategic planning is more important than ever but must become a dynamic process. Dr Skinner emphasised the importance of encouraging creativity and real dialogue in the short term execution and evaluation of your plan. If you’re going to succeed, you must always be on top of your strategy.


Megatrends and Government


Megatrends heading towards Jersey include climate change, an aging population, population growth, changing technology, global competition, and competition from rapidly growing cities for business and talent.


Dr Skinner said: “Jersey is facing significant future challenges which will soon be upon us and will change our Island as we know it today. The trouble is that these challenges are affecting everyone around us too - so there is a double whammy – because the planned response of other jurisdictions invariably generates increased competition for business and talent.”


That is why Jersey’s government is looking to adopt best practise from across the world in reviewing its own strategic planning process.


What we aim to do is to identify the enduring economic, environmental and social goals which drive quality of life in our Island and provide clarity on what we hope to achieve. That will set strategic direction and allow successive governments to develop medium term priority plans designed to keep Jersey on course.


Dr Skinner emphasised that a new, shared vision for Jersey should not simply be seen as a government plan - it’s about how we come together as a community to meet the challenges we face.


Key Points:


Without a clear focus, there is no common purpose, and without a common purpose there is no effective execution. In war, government or business – that is fatal.


Strategy may not survive contact with competitors, however, investment in planning will always help make your company stronger.


Management needs to devote time to strategy and keep evaluating and strengthening plans.


Market intelligence and agility is increasingly important. Agility needs to accompany preparation.


Government needs to play its part by giving clarity about strategic direction.