Brutal truth about what makes or brakes in-house strategy teams

Some companies choose not to have a dedicated in-house strategy team and that’s perfectly fine. Among those who do have them, these teams rarely perform at the top of their game, which is unfortunate given the quality of talent they typically attract.

The main objective of a strategy team should be to ensure that the business asks the right questions and makes more right choices than wrong (“the what”). The ratio of good-to-bad decisions is one of the main determinants of success. Then comes the second objective – when the right decisions are made the strategy team should help put them to action in the most effective manner (“the how”). “The why” is really something for the executives and the board to tackle (of course, with some contribution from strategy).

Over the years, I’ve come across a wide variety of in-house strategy teams and noticed five common traits shared by those who nail “the what” and “the how”.

They have a degree of autonomy to set agenda within agreed enterprise strategy – not a rubber-stamping deck-pumping function that only exists to justify decisions that have already been made. Top strategy talent becomes disengaged and resentful if utilised as PowerPoint monkeys. Best people leave looking for places where they can make an impact. Those who stay become used to the back-office support role instead of leading the business forward – but let’s not kid ourselves, this is not strategy. For the real strategy team to kick goals, there has to be a healthy balance between pull work (i.e. supporting business units or executive agenda) and push work (i.e. framing the questions, setting the agenda and looking out for meaningful innovation opportunities).

They permeate organisational boundaries by connecting people, ideas, and capabilities – not a bunch of nerds hiding behind their laptops. “Silo-fication” is a major challenge of almost any organisation with over a hundred employees. One of key value adds of an in-house strategy team should be silo-busting – bringing up the best ideas and capabilities from across the business to answer the toughest questions and tackle the biggest challenges. If senior leaders and middle management don’t know their strategy team and what they do – the company may not be getting its money’s worth. 

They co-create and genuinely bring people on the journey – not give it to the stakeholders on a plate. Authorship is [way] more powerful than ownership, so for the in-house strategy team to have any material impact, they need to get their key stakeholders to co-own the work from the kick-off day. The more stakeholder fingerprints (within reason of course) a piece of work collects, the greater its chance of seeing the light of day. The most brilliant pieces that are done “to the business” quickly find their way to the rubbish bin.

They own to the point of [guaranteed] success – not wash their hands after the final ELT presentation. Transition from a slide deck to execution is the biggest challenge of any strategy. A capability gap (even a small one) can derail the best of strategies – that’s how many important decisions and break-through concepts end up collecting dust on the shelf. In-house teams unlike external consultants (who are bound more by “deliverables” and timelines than outcomes) have a luxury to hang around and ensure that the good work does not go to waste. Experienced multi-skilled strategy team should get their hands dirty when required to push the projects beyond the pack – to the point where business owners are ready to take over.

They maintain the bar high – it means zero tolerance to mediocracy in both talent and thrust. While talent has to be a non-negotiable constant, thrust is a variable that can easily go out of control. A career transition from full-throttle strategy consulting to slower-paced industry may come with a bit of disillusionment. As a result, some may shift gears and drop their own standards thinking “why should I push myself if everybody is chilling out”. But if the strategy team loses steam, who else will hustle and stretch boundaries of possible? An in-house team should get their post-consulting work-life balance in order by cutting out 30% of non-value-adding pack-spinning and admin waste that they had to cope with in consulting. The other 70% should be dedicated to pushing themselves and the rest of the business to be better than yesterday, constantly lifting the bar by a notch.

Five is a good number, but there is a factor that does not quite fit the list, because it is not something that the strategy team can necessarily control. It is about keeping the [most] cool gigs in-house (aka trusting your team to deliver) – not handing all newsworthy work to external consultants. If the in-house team is any good, it will get demotivated in no time when fed with consulting left-overs or used as a body-shop to plug holes in externally managed projects. Sometimes bringing external horsepower is necessary, but if it becomes a norm, the leaders should not be surprised to see their strategy folk walking across the road to the competitor who may be more appreciative of their expertise and knowledge. Paraphrasing the classics, those leaders who don’t feed their own strategy team with exciting work, will feed consultants at 10x the cost.

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