Manifesto on strategic clarity

Most of my time is spent helping leaders of non-profit organizations and social enterprises to cultivate strategic clarity.

I want them to think clearly about their organizations. I want them to make sensible decisions and act swiftly upon them.

But I’ve noticed how easily we get lost in the activities, documents and tools of strategy. These can become an end in themselves.

I recommend we shift our attention to what we’re trying to achieve: clarity of thinking and good decision-making. Then we become open to possibilities we never considered before.

Sometimes, all we need is a good night’s sleep.

The outcome of strategic clarity

When you have strategic clarity, you can clearly describe the purpose of your organization. You can identify and evaluate any threats and opportunities. You’ll find it easy to focus your efforts to bring about positive shifts in your organization. It will be easier to make decisions and feel that they are the best ones under the circumstances. You’ll be able to act with confidence. This is the state we are all aiming for.

A leader who enters this state can cascade it through their organization. They can share it with their leadership team and staff. Remember that successful leaders rarely work alone.

However, I’ve worked with several leaders who struggle to enter this state. Their organizations have unfortunately suffered as a result.

There are also times when I struggle with strategic clarity. This is why I’ve needed to develop some good habits to enable me to achieve this state of mind when I’m under extreme pressure and overwhelmed by life.

The impact of strategic clarity

Consider the following flow chart, which explains the importance of strategic clarity:

Let me describe what each block in the flow chart means: 

  1. Strategic clarity and insight is the mental and emotional state I’ve described above. It is where we can think clearly about the strategies of our organization and how best to use our resources.
  2. Good strategic decisions are what we’re able to do when we’re in that clear state. It enables us to make coherent and congruent decisions.
  3. Action to implement decisions are the results of our decisions. We may need to enter into a new partnership, shut down a programme, engage new suppliers or work differently.
  4. Improved strategic position and social impact is the purpose of strategy. It’s what we’re aiming for our organization to achieve. It is why we engage in strategic thinking in the first place.

I’ve always thought this flow chart resembles the Logic Model used in impact measurement. There are two similarities I’d like to highlight.

Firstly, the impact of our decisions are influenced by factors outside of our control. These may include politics, competitors, markets, coincidence, unforeseen events etc.

Secondly, it is easier for us to plan and act when we focus on the state we desire, as opposed to the immediate results of our activity.

Emergent clarity

There are several ways we can improve our strategic clarity, if we decide to aim for it.

My ability to think clearly about my strategy and those of my clients is influenced by the following common-sense things, among others:

  • a good night’s sleep
  • eating healthily
  • having the right people involved in the conversation
  • creating time for protracted and undistracted deep work
  • learning how to listen to my intuition and others around me
  • cultivating a more positive view on the future
  • reducing distractions and interruptions from colleagues and media
  • moving to another geographic space, which allows me to ‘see things differently’
  • becoming more aware of my values and how I prefer to operate.

You’d be surprised how frequently these same issues arise in my conversations with leaders. They also struggle to clear their minds and think about their organizations. When they try these simple things, they appear to work.

To confirm what I’m proposing, let’s do a quick thought experiment. Think for a moment back to a time when you were able to think clearly about a difficult strategic situation. Reflect for a moment where you were, how you were feeling, who you were with, and how you felt. The factors I’ve listed most likely played an important role in your ability to enter this state and make the required decisions.

Conclusion

We shouldn’t invest all our hopes and resources in an annual event like a strategic planning workshop. Neither should we focus them on developing long and complex strategic planning documents.  Focus on the strategic conversation instead.

We should also be creative about the things are under our control, but do not belong in the traditional domain of strategy tools. This is what this article has been about.

I’ll leave you with a question. What simple change will help you to think more clearly and make better strategic decisions?

Thanks to Andy Simpson (Imani Development) and Philip Anastasiadis for their insightful contributions to this article.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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