In strategy, should everything start with “customer”? Is the key to be “brand led”? The outright winner is most certainly ‘purpose’.


The Word Wars

There is a funny one-upping in the world of strategy — a competition to decide what idea should sit at the very heart of an organisation. Concepts, and the people that earn from them, vie to be held as the idea to trump all others. Should everything start with “customer”? Is the key to be “brand led”? Isn’t the essence of strategy “business models”, “agile thinking” and “design”? Well the outright winner is most certainly ‘purpose’.

How many problems in the facilitation of a strategy can be solved with aligning on terms of reference?
Answer: pretty much all of them.

Strategy is merely the process of capturing and then living an agreed story about the future your organisation will create. And that means aligning on, reinforcing, testing, making decisions against, and corralling action around words. 

Strategic competency — the skill often identified as a learning opportunity for would-be leaders (often with no real prescription about how to obtain it) — is really just arriving at an understanding of how ideas produce action, and how to formulate, organise and communicate those ideas. But the industry of strategy is hell-bent on making life hard, with terms and fads that seek to ‘own’ the nomenclature of your future. 

In the beginning was VMOSA.

Once upon a time, a strategist could get away with Vision-Mission-Objectives-Strategies-Action (VMOSA), an established ordering of the components of strategic planning from what I would describe as the military tradition. VMOSA is beautiful in its clarity and prescription, and is a strong source of established definitions. It serves well-defined organisations well.

The reason VMOSA does not hold an undefeated position on the leader board of strategy is that some organisations encounter a set of problems not adequately overcome by such an ordered thought. There are other problems that plague organisations — cultural legacy, internal politics, rapid change, employee disengagement, market disruption, imperatives to diversify, shifting customer sentiment, a need to transform into something completely different. For these organisations — complex organisations — executing on strategy requires more than comfortable process.

In fact, some have called strategic planning ‘the big lie’ because it is so comforting. It lacks the struggle and striving to really face into any challenge. It lacks the discomfort and ambiguity that forces new ways of thinking and acting. It creates an illusion of control when the reality teeters on the precipice of chaos. With true strategic enquiry you are asked, as Roger Martin once said, “to confront a future you can only guess”. 

Maybe all organisations are complex organisations?

It’s unfashionable to speak of complexity as part of the nature of organisations. We are meant to say that good organisations are clear and simple. Take the word in the sense of being sophisticated rather than confused. Organisations have depth, nuance, and other vital dynamics worthy of engaging with. Certainly, a strategic idea must be clear and simple. A direction and plans must be elegant. But an organisation, if it is to achieve such beautiful things, needs to be sophisticated. It needs to face into its complexity.

Forces like globalisation (a borderless world), digital disruption (the step change agent), and a material shift in power towards customers and employees (people-centric), have together meant that few organisations escape complexity unscathed. It is the new normal.

So while VMOSA is neat and tidy, complex organisations need an instrument of strategy that supports struggle and striving. They require something not just of form but of substance.

People want more. 

Even beyond the fallacy of control, a military strategy is not sufficient because it leaves too many questions unanswered for the resource that is most critical to bringing strategy to life — namely people.

It is a responsibility of strategy to give people a reason to believe in their organisation, and to create meaning in their work.

Robots may like instructions. People like reasons. Robots need, I dunno, binary and oil. People need meaning and self-actualisation. Robots need, wavy arms with clasping mechanisms (it’s clear I don’t know much about robots). People need an authentic answer that satisfies their curiosity. 

The reason that discussions of the primacy of ‘brand’, and ‘customer experience’ and ‘employee engagement’ have been so successful is that they’ve sought to capture imaginations. The reason that ‘values’ have struck such a chord in complex organisations is that it signals a recognition of the essentially human nature of a group — instead of conceiving the corporation as some artifice extrinsic to the people it comprises.

Although brand, vision, customers — even digital and agile — are more connected to the question of what drives an organisation to create its future, they are predicated on something even more essential, and their strength will derive from that foundation. 

His rubric might be trite and his intellectual importance overstated, but Simon Sinek produced a great book title: “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”.

Start with Purpose — it doesn’t change, but it inspires change. 

Discussion of objectives and targets is pointless unless predicated on the same ideas about why an organisation exists. If my reason is different, then my preferred result might also prove different, and this discontinuity is conflated by the scale of an organisation. One deviation in belief at the leadership level might avalanche into intractable cultural barriers and dysfunctional silos deeper within an organisation. Low order discussions in the absence of an article of belief will also be uninspiring, and without belief even the greatest strategic thinking will remain within the pages of a dusty folder. 

It is worth taking the time to grapple with terms and ask “why do we exist?”, “what will we create?”, and “what is our purpose?”

Once a purpose is clear, you can start to struggle with what future you want to see and shape (Vision). You may then express what kind of organisation you’ll strive to be in order to pursue that vision — what promise will you make that stretches the organisation. You’ll determine how you see yourself and how you want to be seen as you embark on the journey (Brand). With a purpose, vision, and brand identity, you will then start to interact with the world and each other. Set some principles for guiding this interaction, and make these principles part of a living conversation about who you are and what standards you expect (Values). You now have personality, integrity, a reason to exist, and standards to exist by — an authentic platform from which to start working. 

VMOSA isn’t at all bad. It just doesn’t start with people, who must themselves start with purpose. 

The Purpose Formula

To define a purpose, answer: “why do we exist?” Consider the following:

  • Ground your purpose in a statement of belief
  • Allude to how you spend your time and exhaust your resources
  • Try to capture why your organisation — your social group — is unique
  • Make your purpose true for the organisation and individuals

The answer may be simple and come quickly, but that does not undo its power. A strategy is communicated so that people can regularly return to it and test their ideas and actions against its terms. Arrive at them through grit and striving, rather than analytical process, and you’ll be richer for it. 

Also note this: a rose by any other name would smell so sweet. Tesla doesn’t have a purpose statement, but they have a rock-solid mission — one that speaks to their purpose and guides every decision and discussion. In the long term, that company may succeed or fail, but no one should be in any doubt that it has clarity despite its complex undertakings. No one could say it lacks a strategic intent that is both reasoned and bold. They have increased their chance of mastering their future by being deliberate and aligned. It is the intention of having purpose that matters here — the intention to discuss strategy in a way that is not procedural but with an authentic intention to create your future.


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