May 4, 2016

Insights from the Chief Strategy Officer Summit, London, April 26th – 27th

The Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) Summit  is a unique event, featuring CSOs from top private, public, and voluntary sector organisations sharing their thoughts and most pressing concerns in today’s complex business world. The key insights and burning issues of today’s CSOs are highlighted in my review of the top ten conference themes below.

  1. Be nimble, but disciplined – Most companies recognise they need to adapt to survive by managing digital threats and exploiting digital opportunities. In this context, being nimble is essential, not optional. That said, resources in every organisation are limited, so areas of focus must be clearly defined and prioritised. Equally, brand strategies must sync up with corporate strategies.  Axa’s CSO Parul Kaul outlined a data rich strategy enabling Axa to achieve its altruistic brand goal to become more than just a ‘grudge’ purchase’.
  2. Strategy is changing and evolving – Technological change creates demand for new strategies and approaches – it has never been more important to evaluate where a company fits within a fluid ecosystem of potential partners or disrupters. MasterCard’s approach is to collaborate explained Malin Berge. Working with partners like Wagamama to co-create service improvements, MasterCard is helping increase loyalty and overall spend which is mutually beneficial. Niccolo Polli of HSBC acknowledged they are still figuring out how to deal with the many Fintech threats eroding its market. Mergers and acquisitions are a key way business try to acquire new skills sets, but if issues like culture are not addressed such tactics will fail.
  3. Culture eats strategy for breakfast (said Peter Drucker apparently) – This concern kept coming up as a potent threat of the best crafted strategies. Culture can be fixed, but it needs to be treated as a strategic priority. Consultant, Dan Yolleck shared proven methods for transforming culture, a significant contributor to business growth if functional. Once addressed, it can become self-sustaining. Dan listed Costco, Disney Google, and Apple as exemplars.
  4. People skills are critical to success – Given that less than 10% of effectively formulated strategies are successfully implemented (Walter Kiechel, 1982), strategy execution is as important as strategy formulation. Strategists can’t afford to sit in an ivory tower. If they are to survive and help their organisations thrive, they need to be useful. That means getting out into the business,  being helpful and building trust with key stakeholders. Go where the doors are open, achieve some early successes, and you will find your services in demand as did Laura Gutowski of Pret-a-Manager. Her experience was echoed by News UK’s Shannon Riley who sited listening as one of her top strategic skills.
  5. Strategy should manage but not own innovation – The relationship between strategy and innovation is critical. EE’s Guillaume Sampic believes regardless of who delivers innovation in an organisation, the adoption process need to be aligned with strategy. Why limit innovation to a single individual when the whole organisation can be involved in improving it?
  6. Strategy can be frugal – In mission driven organisations, it can be hard to focus, according to Teach First’s Samantha Butters.  Katherine Crisp, Unicef UK’s CSO gained inspiration from developing world approaches outlined in Frugal Innovation (doing more with less) to create their five-year strategy. She drew on heavily on a collaborative internal processes to craft the plan for this lean organisation with noble ambitions.
  7. Partnerships are pivotal – Shazam’s Iain Dendle explained their strategy is to build a base of satisfied users, making them one of the most downloaded apps in the world, then monetise their service through partnerships. For other industries like aviation, partnerships can take years to yield benefits, but they are increasing as a means of building scale.
  8. Different skill sets are needed in start-ups vs corporates – The size, maturity and structure of an organisation will definitely impact on your role and locus of influence. Regardless of size, strategists need to work closely with CEOs to ensure harmonisation and alignment. While targets may be set by the centre, local markets have plenty of scope for autonomy and creativity according to Vodafone’s Group CSO Vishal Dixit. Smaller organisations definitely need strategists to work closely with implementers and ensure feedback loops send signals back into the business.
  9. Strategists must be good story tellers – A key requirement for strategists today is to create and share a coherent simple story that colleagues can easily understand and articulate to others. Visuals and brevity help articulate strategy making strong communications skills an essential ingredient in the strategists’ toolset.
  10. Strategists will not be replaced by machines – Although artificial intelligence is on the rise and machines are becoming smarter, according to Liana Dinghile of Seigel and Gale, they will not replace us due to their inherent lack of creativity. Whilst they may help us synthesise vast amounts of data, at least, for now, they still need us to tell them what to do.

With all this great intelligence being shared, the two-day event flew by. By the end, it felt like a small peer community was emerging. Certainly, the commonalities outweighed the differences of what organisations large and small, public or private are addressing through strategy.

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