So what keeps strategists up at night? The CSO Summit regularly brings strategy leads together to talk about their priorities. Here are the key themes that stood out for me this year. I first attended the CSO Summit in 2016 and wrote about it here. The 2016 themes are all still relevant, but they have evolved.
1. The practice of strategy is in flux. Whilst some aspects of the role will always remain constant (i.e. the need to set direction to optimise commercial performance), the focus and skills required are continuously morphing to match market conditions. What’s certain? The clever strategist in the ivory tower is a relic of the past. Successful strategists need to be able to flex a multitude of skills in increasingly complex and fast paced milieux. ‘Don’t be clever, be useful’ said Ogilvy’s Kevin Chesters, quoting his prescient grandmother.
2. Technology is a big driver of change. We all know it’s true. Google’s Craig Fenton described customers ‘in the age of assistance’ as ‘curious, demanding, impatient’ based on insights from Google data. In this context, brands need to ‘show up, wise up, and speed up’. River Island drove more footfall in-store, and ultimately sales, by showcasing available products alongside store locations in mobile search. Understanding the relationship between online and offline behaviour is vital.
3. Revenue is the other big driver of change. UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kew, needed to jumpstart its strategy urgently when funding dwindled putting them in peril. Kew’s solution? A radically new approach to audience engagement according to Director of Strategy David Cope. The Hive was a creative masterstroke by their new CEO demonstrating, the enduring importance of creativity. It links Kew’s scientific expertise with a modern immersive brand experience which drew crowds and generated excitement. Funding challenges are especially pertinent for non-profits who must create social value whilst remaining profitable.
4. The right technology is essential to keep up with customers. Whilst marketing has traditionally been the source of customer insight, today it needs digital technology to do its job. Nimrod Cohen of Network Rail, presented an IT strategy showcasing the systems needed to deliver a customer centric vision. Given the scale of investment required to upgrade their IT infrastructure (£26M), Nimrod gave a masterclass on the need for strategic alignment of functional and business strategy.
5. Employees are an often untapped source of customer truth. How do you set yourselves up to be customer centric? Ignacio Garcia of Room Mate Group, a boutique hotel chain, talked about using employee insights to enhance customer experience. He gave an example of a new service which came from a housekeeper based on feedback she received directly from customers. Organisations who only cascade information in a top-down manner will miss out on gaining actionable insights from frontline employees.
6. Emotional intelligence is a must have. Crafting strategy with input from others will make it or break it. Sarah Ilieva of the British Council was asked to write a strategy, but realised she did not have to write it on her own. Collaboration with colleagues helps bring alignment and a shared sense of ownership. Stress testing it with others makes it more robust. Rob Kerner, a former Head of Innovation with RBS, said he would never take anything into the boardroom without knowing he had supporters.
7. Strategists must now be ‘engagement’ experts. Strategists need to bring others onboard by collaboratively formulating, sharing, and working through any issues or concerns people have that could block progress and ultimately success. This truth is as pertinent for addressing diversity and inclusion, says David Carrigan of Citizens Advice, as it is for delivering product and service innovation. Dublin Airport’s Valerie Price took their strategy on tour throughout the airport, which she compared to a small city, to communicate effectively with all stakeholders and get feedback. St. John’s Ambulance’s James Radford told us strategy is merging with communications. Their army of thousands of volunteers are their brand ambassadors.
8. Co-creation with end-users is the next evolution of the strategist’s role. Kelly Grellier from The Blue Cross spoke about the power of applying design thinking to organisational challenges. With support from CAST, they used Design Sprints to fast track the development of a new product. Her story chimes with my own experience using Design Sprints with the DEC. Instead of talking about needed change for years, sprints accelerate progress by developing prototypes in five days. Whilst common in product development, they can be applied to any problem solving area.
9. The best strategists join up the dots. No matter your original discipline, the best strategies are creative synthesizers. Harman’s Rajkumar Ragupathy, who comes from a user-centred design background, talked about the need to combine user needs with business requirements and tech capabilities. As strategists get closer to customers, creative ones will find it easier to translate customer needs into executable ideas. Equally, the ability to translate strategic concepts into stories will aid their understanding and transmission. Rob Kerner (formerly of RBS) found the concept of the ‘robo banker’ helped his work land better than any strategy presentation. Expect creative strategists to be in demand.
10. Digital detoxs are needed to boost creativity. Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina, author of Homo Distractus, talked about the addictive nature of technology. She made a compelling case for switching off from it regularly to ensure our brains are able to recover and we can continue to thrive creatively.
It is clear these interrelated challenges are front-of-mind now, but the next wave of change will be even more profound. We need to start engaging with how strategists must re-design their organisations to enable closer collaboration with colleagues and customers. We also need to address how 4IR technologies like blockchain and AI are catalyzing and enabling new organisational forms (e.g. DAO’s) and ways of working based on big data and predictive analytics. We urgently need to explore their potential to disrupt and enrich the business status quo.
What are your biggest strategic challenges this year?