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Declarative Strategy: The Importance of Strategic Initiatives

This content is sponsored by Belcan

Author: Jas. Powell, CTO – Enterprise IT, Belcan Government Services

Good Strategy

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege to work alongside of some great strategic thinkers. I’ve also had excellent experiences working with amazing planners. Only rarely have those two kinds of cohorts been available at the same time (or more impressively, in the same person). Along the way I’ve learned from both organically; and with research and trial and error, formed methods and found tools that help deliver that value to improve strategic and tactical planning. What I’ve found most often missing from strategies is a strong declarative nature that links them to good planning; A tone set from well written strategic initiatives and goals. The kind of things that make a strategy Declarative is also what make it effective. In the next few pages we’re going to break-down some concepts of strategic thinking using a few examples. Then we’ll overlay some context, describe how to craft the kind of initiatives and goals that make a strategy effective, and discuss other attributes of a successful Declarative Strategy.

Lessons from Advanced Tactical Training

One of the more useful thinking tools taught in advanced military tactical training is the concept of an OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, repeat. Originally developed by Col. John Boyd during the war in Korea to hone the decision cycle used by fighter pilots to speed reaction time, its employment lead to Col. Boyd’s squadron maintaining a 10:1 kill ratio despite the superior equipment flown by opposing forces.

The OODA loop has since been leveraged across other areas of strategic training. An aspect of this training explains that if you can break your enemy’s OODA loop at any point, you win:

  • Observe – Stealth or disinformation break your enemy’s ability to know your position – You win
  • Orient – Feint or disrupt enemy comms to break you enemy’s ability to orient to your action– You win
  • Decide – Break your enemy’s command and control and affect their ability to decide how to react – You win
  • Act – Disable enemy weapon systems so they can no longer act against you – You win

Breaking your enemy’s loop at any point leads to their defeat. Success comes from maintaining the integrity of your OODA loop while breaking your opponent’s. I’m going to use this concept in the context of business strategy to help understand the merits of having a declarative strategy, the parts of a strategy that make it declarative, how to best leverage these ideas, and the importance of not breaking your own loop.

Alternative Lessons from Classic Literature

The children’s book The Sneetches by Doctor Seuss is for most people about the absurdity of prejudice and discrimination. For kids, it’s about silly birds who learn a lesson. For me, this story is primarily about Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the “villain” in the story. But in my opinion, what goes overlooked is McBean’s use of strategic thinking and execution.

The story mainly goes like this (spoiler alert?): There are two groups of birds on a beach, some with a star on their stomachs, and some without. The ones with stars feel and act superior and exclude those without stars. Then comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who sees the conflict and then decides to profit from it until all the sneetches are out of money, then moves on. This story well describes McBean’s use of strategy executed through an OODA loop. From a Sales perspective, look at Observe and Orient as Account Planning; Orient and Decide as Strategy. Act being tactical execution of the strategy. What we see is McBean arrives at the Sneetches’ beach and observes the differences and social interactions between the types of Sneetches. He then orients his capabilities given the observed need. He then decides to make his machine add stars to the non-star-belly Sneetches, he then Acts and charges $5 to add a star to all Sneetches that want one. Next, he loops around and observes the new state of the Sneetches and then offers trips through a star-off machine, then loops around again causing some confusion but resulting in all the Sneetches giving all their money to McBean.

But Sylvester McMonkey McBean is not done. He again observes that the business opportunities in this vertical have shrunk (Sneetches are broke), orients to his lack of ability to make money on this beach and decides to look elsewhere; taking his horizontal capability off to another vertical – to check out the next beach.  A few successful executions of an OODA loop from a strategic stand-point. Account planning leading to strategic initiatives delivered through specific actions. (The happy ending for the kids is that the Sneetches learn that there is no best kind of Sneetches. For the rest of us it’s a depiction of the Marxist progression of capitalism to socialism through socio-economic emancipation … but that’s another topic.)

Account Plans and Strategy

Don’t break your own loop! In a business context, this lays out the problems of not putting together account plans, thinking strategically, and executing effectively. The part of the Sales OODA loop that breaks is most often Decide. It typically looks more like [O]->[O]->[D&A]. The Decide-Act combination is much more knee-jerk in nature and since it’s not from actionable strategic initiatives, it’s often counter-purpose to other business or customer initiatives, market, or orientation. If McBean didn’t focus his machine on the strategic task at hand, he may very well not have taken all their money, left before he got all their money, or worse yet – stayed longer and wasted resources on a machine with no customers.

A competent strategy is created on top of account planning, industry, customer, and competitive intelligence, and results in actionable initiatives that become tactical activities. It needs to be Declarative. If an activity is not tied to an initiative, it may very well be cross-purpose. A number of years ago I was consulting for an organization that struggled with planning. In talking with customers, it was uncovered that a sales rep in the same organization was leading with a professional services offering to support a competitors legacy technology while another was leading with a better aligned technology solution that required very little professional services support. The two sales reps were goaled on professional services revenue and technology sales revenue respectively. From the outside-in, it’s easy to see this problem. But it does happen – as it does in other companies. The organization did not align it’s sales goals to strategic initiatives.

Well defined goals and measurable initiatives are assigned the best possible Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) through account planning. These KPIs assist in measuring both achievement and drift of the tactical execution through the connections of your loops.

Consider a somewhat cliché yet classic failure of an OODA loop in a sales context: the buggy-whip. With the advent and sudden popularity and availability of the automobile, buggy-whip vendors faced the challenge that people were buying fewer horses. Given that observation, the buggy whip manufacturers faced a shrinking market. The historical reality is of course more complex, but in the cliché example, buggy-whip manufacturers waged political war against the automobile. A strategy, albeit an unsuccessful one. There was a clear account planning failure. Observations did not connect well with orientation.  A broken loop.

Strategies and Connectivity 

Regardless of the type of strategy we are talking about (competitive, corporate, business, functional, operating), adding the declarative element will increase its impact by strengthening the framework built by writing initiatives that align to set goals. From the OODA loop perspective, look at Account Planning, Strategy, Execution, and Reporting as the connective-tissue that keeps the components of the loops linked. Thorough account planning, declarative strategy, decisive execution, and comprehensive reporting all work to maintain loop integrity through the myriad challenges, market shifts, and conflicts that will arise. 

Let’s take a closer look at a relational analysis of some attributes we can apply to the concepts of these components (fig. 1). The ability to adapt and react with highly specific actions is the realm of execution and tactics; while vision and shaping are lead by good planning and strategy. The connecting overlap becomes clear, as does the focused competitive differentiators enabled by strategy. Using this graph we can easily see how Account Planning overlaps and links Strategy to Execution. When this is broken or skipped we lose that flow of direction, alignment, and delivery.

Initiatives: The “We Will” of Strategy

The specificity of initiatives is a spectrum, from granular to overarching goals & guidance, initiatives included in a Declarative Strategy are iterations and variations on a three-part theme that all contain these attributes: ARM; Activity, Reason, and Measurable outcome. For example:

  • “We will divest from the shrinking buggy-whip market over the next two years.”
    • Activity: Divest
    • Reason: Shrinking market
    • Measure: Within two years
  • “I will build a machine that adds stars to the bellies of Sneetches to meet the demand and can expect to make ([# of plain-belly Sneetches that have at least $5] x $5). “
    • Activity: Machine configuration
    • Reason: Market demand
    • Measure: Upside $ value

This is the basis for a Declarative Strategy. A smart person once said, “If it can’t be measured, it shouldn’t be done.” Context aside, and while not universally true, it is broadly sound advice. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are critical to healthy business. As an organization, being able to see drift or trending in any direction allows for correction or optimization. With no measurements or goals, there’s no way to tell if the initiatives are working, failing, or need to be modified. Without these you are flying blind and only hoping to succeed. And as another smart person repeatedly told me, “Hope is not a plan for success.” Hope is a good feeling. As a verb it holds less value for me: I prefer planning.

Not all initiatives need to follow this equation. There is value in setting initiatives that are not written to be measured; but instead set a direction or gather information. The measure in this case is either success/failure or additional understanding.

  • “We will research diversification options and feasibility of repurposing existing resources away from buggy-whip manufacturing.”
    • Activity: Research
    • Reason: To see what is possible at what cost
    • Measure: Information gathered
  • “I will leave this beach because the Sneetches here are out of money.”
    • Activity: Relocate
    • Reason: Vacant market
    • Measure: Direction set

Well-armed initiatives (pun intended) that set the tone for an upcoming project or timeframe will drive other measurable activities along the same path and help keep cross-purpose efforts to a minimum. Always keep in mind that these initiatives are connecting the Orient and Decide parts of the OODA loops and enabling your organization to Act effectively while providing measurements that can be Reported on to further complete the loop.

Setting strategic initiatives allows an organization to commit to actions faster. There is less time spent asking for permission or weighing options and seeking more proof (from research or other intel) that it is the right thing to do. Initiatives commit an organization to act more swiftly. If you take a look at the U.S. Dept. of Defense National Defense Strategy and the Dept. of Homeland Security Cybersecurity Strategy you’ll see great examples of declarative strategies broken-down into initiatives and goals.

A Living Document

I love failure. Having worked in the IT Innovation space for a significant number of years, I’ve learned that being comfortable with failure is a success enabler. Becoming comfortable with failure requires only two things. The first is notes. Understand why you failed by recording as much data about the failure as possible. Documenting “what not to do” is not a true failure, but rather a step towards success. Therefore, getting that data from measurable sources – measurements outlined in initiatives perhaps – lines you up for future success even before the first failure.

The second thing required to becoming comfortable with failure is practice. Not so much practice at failing but failing correctly and learning to learn from it in ways that lead to not failing. This could be a whole separate topic, but for the purposes of this article see how a Declarative Strategy lines your organization up for future success by introducing agreed-upon KPIs upfront. You’ll see the failures coming and be much closer to documenting what is happening and why, then be able to adapt to changes and reorient as needed to avoid real and true complete failure. Understand exculpatory results and position to correct.

The third thing (failing at there being only two things) is recognizing proof that you are wrong as a positive and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth: to expand your understanding of the issue at hand. It should be exciting.

In that tone, an effective Declarative Strategy is a living document that will shift or grow with the addition of new or corrected information or understanding. A Declarative Strategy and its included actionable-measurable-achievable-initiatives disseminated across your organization becomes the roadmap for everyone to follow to work towards the same goal. It will speed execution and limit cross-purpose activities by being the prime reference for first layer of what should and should not be acted on, such as:

 

 

 

 

Get strategic, take initiative, don’t break your own loop

As you approach your next strategy or engage is strategic thinking, use these tools to increase the impact of the result. Keep your OODA loop connected and include well ARM’d initiatives. We see -> We can -> We will -> We did. Getting all the money from all the sneetches on all the beaches may seem like a somewhat nefarious goal, but understanding how that works (strategically, not as a Marxist tool) is the win. There is a reason why management consulting is a fifty-eight billion dollar a year business. Use Declarative Strategies to win.

Let’s continue the #strategy conversation on Twitter, tag me @JasPowell and contact Belcan Government Services for assistance. We help provide crucial observations of the Public Sector, assist in orientation towards success, aid in decisions and crafting goals and initiatives, and have a history of delivery and innovation.