Autopilot, religion, curry and dog
I’ll illustrate my understanding of a well-implemented corporate strategy with four concepts: Autopilot, religion, curry and dog. As an autopilot, strategy knows where you want to go and how, and despite of possible storms, it remembers your initial plan. Like religion, strategy gives you answers to your daily puzzles. Reminding curry, strategy gives its recognizable flavor, and everyone around can tell what you have been up to. And finally, as a bad behaving dog, it barks at everything and bites the crap out of intruders.
An intelligent strategy includes a map to the treasure chest; it forecasts the market correctly and contains everything that the market would expect from a successful company. However, a kickass strategy takes into account the special characteristics of the company, paying special attention to its people and culture. People make the company, and their strengths, interests and dreams should be recognized and boosted, and finally drawn to a map that everyone in the company wants to follow.
Finally, I see that any written, or drawn, strategy is better than no strategy. Writing strategy is like defining a race track; you set conditions and see how the company handles, you set targets and learn how these can be met, if they can. Could it get any better?
There are zillion ways to approach strategy, in which format to write the magical receipt and how to implement the strategy process. Already academics recognize five different ways of thinking about the essential characteristics of strategic planning and ten different schools of strategic management (1). Practitioners multiply these numbers together and add few zeros. During their strategy processes, companies choose preferred theories, ways, schools and ideas, and combine them as seen appropriate. It has been said that most successful companies know how to mix and use different strategic frameworks in parallel.
This being said, question about best possible format is impossible to answer. However, theory may help in finding the best approaches and methodologies, by analyzing current status of a company’s strategy and strategic management.
Although I love experimenting and would like to recommend everyone just trying different approaches, asking for professional guide to walk you through the safari, may pay off.
VALA strategy process
The first time we launched a corporate strategy for VALA was in the beginning of 2015. To be able to reach this, with valuable help of a strategy partner Swtech, we went through a painful but educative process of analyzing where we are, where we want to go and how are we going to get there. Vision, mission and values were complemented with programs and battlefields containing more practical plans in reaching the goals set. Defining the route for a small company was challenging, but after having everything on paper, the journey started feeling lighter.
During those first two years with strategy, we have almost quadrupled company turnover and definitely have become better in what we are doing.
In 2016 it was time to revise the strategy. Again we questioned everything, but this time started from very basic question: Who should define the future direction? Will we investigate the market trends, trust our instincts or ask professionals? We chose the third option, and asked the whole personnel where we should go. When working with 60 intelligent professionals, you have to trust that your colleagues know best. At the same time, if everyone can be involved in deciding about the direction, the work content may become much more motivating.
On August 26th 2016, we had a Strategy Afternoon, where all valagroupies were invited to share their thoughts, wishes, dreams, feelings and sources of motivation. In several small workshops, we all were challenged to see what is inside and outside each box. In addition to great discussions, we were able to gather extremely valuable data from the valued colleagues.
The data was later summarized and analyzed to understand individual wishes, but also to find generic patterns in those wishes. It was evitable that previously known sources of internal motivation i.e. expertise, cohesion, doing good and voluntary were present and needed reaction, but everyone’s unique thoughts made the work really interesting, but also challenging.
At this point, we received external help from our new strategy partner VALOR. With their professional, persistent and merciless program, the post-it-papers and excel summaries were written to a story where everything made sense, and most of all, that could be written further, to the future.
When the ultimate goal for next three years was being written, interesting work and well executed projects were seen just as milestones. Beyond those were people’s dreams, both professional and the secret ones, and understanding what the clients really need. This was concluded in the vision.
Our vision: We have the happiest people and clients in Finland.
Next we needed concrete tools on how we will get to the vision. The tool selection was done combining everyone’s interests to our views of the market trends. At VALA we have always been mastering both software development and quality assurance, and this road we will also follow. On this road, we have special interest and edge in automation technologies such as test automation. This provided us the mission.
Our mission: Enhancing client’s business through meaningful work, quality-focused development and automation.
And finally the values. Here we have had everything ready since the beginning. Our group has always been more like a group of friends instead of a corporation. Therefore, the values are the same as always before.
Our values: Focused on clients, dedicated to people.
What next? Rather abstract strategy sentences can’t be just published on a newsletter hoping that everyone becomes happy, dedicated and automated. Writing the story to the future, needed concrete plans and translations. Those were summarized from several discussions, brainstorms and ideas. Summaries became four development programs including tens of scheduled action points.
Teemu runs technology program, where we will focus on skills and professional development. There will soon be first Centers of Excellence where we will get to world’s top level on chosen technologies. First one, the (test) automation CoE we will have running still this spring.
Jasmiina manages people program, where we focus on company culture and people with keywords such as meaningful work, professional drive, family, friends, dreams, hobbies, vacations, nutrition, rest, physical activity and general health.
Toni is responsible for marketing program, where we focus on branding and communication of our company culture, both internally and externally. All the good things really can be transparent.
Otso is master of sales program, where we focus on clients and understanding their needs. We continue with the quality work implemented so far, but simultaneously we want to understand how our skills and unique company culture can benefit the client best.
Finally, one more tool was implemented. To make strategy part of our everyday life, and to monitor the progress of the strategy, we published a balanced scorecard tuned to measure the progress towards the goals set.
The scorecard measures progress in four different areas, i.e. happiness, skills, branding and financials, through eight parameters. Progress shows as improved score and after reaching certain threshold, as a reward, the company will invest in people’s happiness by opening a new site in Spain or other desired remote location. However, the main reward lies behind the logic that higher score indicates that right things have been done and people have been involved and committed in the pursue towards the vision.
Technically VALA strategy consists of vision, mission, values, implementation programs and monitoring systems. But to me it contains an autopilot, religion, curry and a dog; I can trust that the strategy knows where we are going and how we should get there. It makes decisions, gives answers and keeps everything consistent. The strategy helps teamwork when everyone knows where we are going and why. And finally, when things are running to the agreed direction, the strategy guards the company and I can sleep.
And what happens after three years? If we have succeeded, there may be growth, and prosperity for us all, which is ok. But the success will be measured with happiness. Only happiness will make us happy.
(1) Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph B. Lampel: Strategy Safari: The complete guide through the wilds of strategic management, 2008
Pictures from the top:
- Neil Austin, www.unsplash.com
- Joel Herzhog, www.unsplash.com
- Emma Hall, www.stocksnap.io