Strategy is a process, not a document

We often get asked by organizations if we will write them a communications strategy. We could, but we won’t. Because we believe that strategy is a process not a document.

Of course, a strategy process can and should be written up into a document. But the most important element of that document will be the action plan. And you can’t put together a meaningful action plan winning the commitment of the people who are going to action the plan.

To start with, you need to get an understanding of where an organization is with its communications effort. And you can’t just make an external assessment for yourself. You need to talk to everyone within the organization to understand why they are doing what they are doing, and perhaps more importantly, why they are not communicating in the way you expect them to. You also need to ask the boss, often the funder. And then you need to triangulate what you’ve been told with what you can see for yourself.

So, when we undertake a Communications Review, we insist on speaking to everyone inside the organization and a few key people outside: funders, members of the board and critical external stakeholders.

We tell you what you need to know, which is not necessarily what you want to hear. A current partner wrote last week: “Pretty rough reading but good for all of this to be open.” She then asked for us to work with her on the solutions.

Often, CEOs will tell us that we don’t need to talk to the programme officers, just the program managers. Or they say we shouldn’t bother talking to the finance staff, or the operations manager, or even the HR officer. But we do. Because we want your strategy to start from where you are, and chart a course towards where realistically we want you to be.

Good strategies have clear destinations but they always involve a journey. And if you set off on that journey without having the right people onboard… Well, you know how that’s going to end.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

For a strategy to work, it needs to have the commitment of the people who are going to deliver it. And only when the process of putting a strategy together has involved listening, will staff be willing to commit to it. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed as someone else’s strategy.

They say “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Strategies which are simply documents, gather dust on a shelf. But strategies which involved a process of organizational culture change are the ones that achieve results. To write an action plan that will actually result in action, you need to listen first and then help people overcome the barriers to inaction that they themselves have identified.

Richard Darlington is Head of Strategic Communications at Well Told Story. Follow him on Twitter: @RDarlo

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