41. Strategic Action Modes

1 November 2022
How can I get my organization to move forward in a strategic way?

Key Definitions

A strategy is a course of action to achieve a particular purpose. An individual or organization has a strategy when they don’t behave in a random or ad hoc fashion, but there is a pattern in what they do and don’t do. Strategy is the logic in the actions as they move forward.

To realize a coherent pattern, strategic action needs to be guided by some deliberate choices made before getting underway. Such a plan of action can be very general and only sketch the ‘big picture’ (setting BOLD goals – broad, optimistic, long-term, and daring) or can be very detailed (setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound).

Conceptual Model

The Strategic Action Modes framework outlines three different manners of moving forward in a strategic way, each requiring a different level of deliberate choices to be made upfront. The key message of this framework is that the archetypical approach called strategic planning – first formulate a blueprint and then move to execution – is not the only form of strategic action. Where detailed choices are hard to make in advance and then roll out, people can still move ahead by trying out and finding out. To be effective, strategists need to run a portfolio of actions (see model 10 – Strategic Agility Model), using all three complementary strategic action modes and formulating just enough beforehand to have sufficient direction for each action.

Key Elements

The five levels at which the intended strategy can be specified are the following:

  1. Strategic Vision. When the intended direction is only set by offering an attractive big picture outline of what the future state could look like, we speak of a strategic vision.
  2. Strategic Guidelines. Once a strategic vision has been specified, the general principles (main routes) that will guide the organization to get there are called strategic guidelines.
  3. Strategic Framework. Along these main routes there will be major initiatives that will be the steppingstones to get to the vision. Together they should form a consistent framework.
  4. Strategic Roadmap. Each of these initiatives can be worked out into a roadmap of key activities, general milestones, main responsibilities, and required budgets.
  5. Strategic Blueprint. Finally, general roadmaps can be filled in to create comprehensive plans detailing all activities, timings, responsibilities, and resources.

The three modes of strategic action are:

  1. Strategy Execution: Roll Out. To execute is to carry out as intended – to roll out a plan that has been determined beforehand. If you know where you’re going and can largely anticipate what will happen, it is efficient to first plan (making a roadmap or blueprint) and then implement. After this ‘planning and doing’, you can always do some adaption along the way (‘check and act’). Planning helps with clarifying priorities, allocating resources, aligning stakeholders, setting performance measures and tracking progress.
  2. Strategy Experimentation: Try Out. To experiment is to field test an assumption – to try out a possibility that you have identified beforehand. If you are not certain enough about the best route forward but have a few hunches as part of your strategic framework, you can give them a trial run and see how things go before proceeding to execution. This lowers the risk of prematurely committing too much time and resources to an unpromising option, while increasing the flexibility to learn, adjust, and develop along the way.
  3. Strategy Expedition: Finding Out. To go on an expedition is to investigate an area – to find out whether an attractive idea has further potential, not by thinking behind your desk, but by going on a voyage of exploration. Inspired by a vision, an expedition mobilizes internal and external stakeholders to see the future differently, scouting for promising options that could later make it to experimentation. An expedition not only looks around but sows ideas that might grow into future options, while also building political support.

Key Insights

  • Strategy is a course of action. Your strategy is what you do (pattern of actions), not what you say you will do (plan of actions). Strategists need to get the organization moving in the best direction, not dwell on making the best PowerPoints. Effective strategists have a bias for action and creating facts on the ground, while making just enough choices ahead of time to help the action to be well-considered and coherent.
  • A plan of actions can vary from BOLD to SMART. Before acting (‘implementation’), some strategic choices need to be made (‘formulation’). These don’t always need to be very specific (SMART), but can also be kept broad (BOLD), or at various levels in between.
  • You can act without knowing the exact direction. If you know with a high level of certainty where you want to go, you can draw up a detailed strategic plan (a strategic blueprint). But waiting to act until you know the exact direction into the fog of the future can lead to procrastination (paralysis-by-analysis). You need to move despite the fog.
  • You can act strategically in three ways. Execution is about acting on a detailed plan (rolling out). Experimentation is about acting on a substantiated hypothesis (trying out). Expedition is about acting on a compelling vision (finding out). All get things moving.
  • You should act strategically in all three ways. Effective strategists initiate actions using all three approaches. This makes a strategy a portfolio of initiatives.
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