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Image of person planning out a strategy in a board game

In past articles, we have talked about the evolution of strategy work—from strategic planning to strategic management and now to strategy management. It is the result of our connected and fuzzy world with changing community needs and expectation for services. Compared to its predecessors, strategy management uses a more rigorous process that values the input of frontline staff, it’s community-centric, and it’s also timely through ongoing development.

What does it mean to strategists—the people who are doing strategy work? As you are pondering and planning for strategy management in your organization, we would like to explore three changes we foresee to the role of strategists. Before we start, let’s take a step back and understand the traditional and current role of strategists.

The Traditional and Current Role of Strategists

Strategic planning was introduced to public sector organizations in the early 1980s. Despite the developments in strategic planning and strategic management, the role of strategists has largely remained unchanged: to lead an annual strategic planning process (or to lead parts of the process).

The process includes a series of activities—scanning the organizational and macro environment, setting goals, and identifying key actions leading to the generation of a document called a strategic plan or strategy. In strategic management, a few more activities are added: engaging the community, identifying and monitoring performance measures, aligning budgets, reviewing performance results, and making adjustments when necessary.

This work involves a broad range of people both within and outside of an organization to understand what is occurring in the environment. Setting goals requires leadership’s direction and input from the frontline. To identify key actions, you have to go back to the business areas. In strategic management, the engagement is even broader, including performance and evaluation specialists, the budget team, communications officers, etc.

So, for strategists to be successful in their roles, they have to have excellent communication, coordination, and time management skills. At the same time, they have to secure leadership buy-in beforehand so that the work is supported along the way. Plus, they have to know the organization so that they can identify and talk to the right person, as time is of the essence. It sounds like a challenging job, right?

But this is based on an assumption that people understand the true value of the work is not just coming from the end product (an approved strategic plan or a strategy), but also from the conversations, learnings, partnerships, and relationships generated in the same process to create the end product.

Imagine two opposite cases: on the one hand, spending too much time in discussions, so the work is delayed and timelines are not met; and on the other hand, being very efficient in managing the time, so every milestone is met, though people are not sufficiently engaged. Good strategists can strike a good balance between the two. Strategists who are inexperienced or not trained properly will likely focus on just getting the end product completed and delivered on time. Without proper involvement, the quality and buy-in of the plan could be questionable, both of which are key to bringing a strategy document to life.

The Evolving Role of Strategists

With the evolution of strategy work, we foresee three changes to the role of strategists:

1. Escalated Role in Scanning

Under the traditional and current role, strategists conduct environment scanning and use the findings to inform opportunities and risks for the strategic plan or strategy. With significant changes in the environment (as a result of the pandemic and other changes in political, economic, social, and technological realms), understanding the status quo is becoming more and more complex: how many new COVID-19 cases did we have yesterday? Are we going to close down or not? What was the unemployment rate for last month? How can we support and rebuild our main street? What is the status of financial relief from governments (or other orders of government)? What lobbying effort do we need?

It is not just the macro environment we want to understand better. We want to serve and know the nuances in the community, particularly our most vulnerable populations. With the requirements of physical distancing, people are asked to stay home where possible. What are the implications to their physical and mental health? How to shop and buy groceries? Where to play and have fun? How can we better support the vulnerable populations? Those are examples of the changing and diverse needs we need to figure out.

We also have to support our staff. At the beginning of the pandemic, organizations had to respond right away. Many of the changes we have made would have been considered impossible in that time frame before. People run on adrenaline and yet changes keep coming. How can we serve our communities in a changing environment without our staff burning out? With more and more people working from home, the boundaries between our work and personal life, at least in physical space, have become less clear. It is certainly more challenging to orient new employees and work together as a team. Last but not least, everyone’s circumstances are different.

Well, it sounds like a long list of questions and challenges. It also presents an opportunity for strategists to step up and try to get ahead of these issues. We can leverage the existing strategic planning process and have more focused conversations: what will likely change in our community? What are the diverse needs? What are the implications to our organization and our staff? How can the leadership and the organization support our staff? As a result of this effort, strategists can bring forward findings of the current state of the community, the organization, and our staff, as well as the intelligence of how we can best respond systematically and holistically. Even when the pandemic is completely under control and over in the not-too-distant future (fingers crossed), we can still benefit from an in-depth understanding of the environment, the community, and our organization.

2. Change in Strategy Development: From Effectiveness to Efficiency

The end product of a strategic planning process is an approved plan or a strategy. The documents often contain a list of actions, many of which are creative and bold by nature as they are the key work to deliver the plan and achieve the ideal future state.

With the disruption we are experiencing, our already-stretched financial condition is getting worse. Rising costs are complicated with decreasing revenues in many sources, such as transit, facilities, business licenses, development, and building permits. The need to focus on value (of tax) is more than ever. Given the uncertain and very constrained financial situation, of the multiple actions that are relevant, which ones yield the greatest value? This reflects a shift from effectiveness (delivery) to efficiency (value).

The change in financial circumstances requires public organizations to move toward (or further) prioritization and resource reallocation. Strategists will need to take one step further: of the identified actions, where to focus and can we have a phased approach for implementation? Do we have relevant work already in place? Can we reduce or stop some of our existing work? Of the services, can we adjust service levels and shift resources? Those are hard questions, unpopular in normal times. And powerful as they yield good value for tax. Even when the financial condition is improved, we can still benefit from a positive continuous improvement and value for tax dollars mentality in our public organizations.

3. From a Doer to a Builder and a Facilitator

In the traditional and current strategic planning process, strategists are the stewards of the process and owner of the end product, collecting necessary information to get the work done. All communication is funneled through strategists. Business areas and other stakeholders just follow the instruction and feed the information.

When we move toward strategy management, an approach that is community-centric and that values the input of the frontline staff, the communication becomes more frequent and fluid. Not surprisingly, if we follow the traditional and current strategic planning process, the workload will increase and it becomes more cumbersome for strategists who are already challenged by timelines. The value of strategists will be constrained as they have limited capacity (as we all do) and have too many threads to manage. It would be worse when strategists focus too much on the delivery of work and not as much on the engagement of people.

With the evolution of strategy work, it requires business areas and departments to think and act more alike as strategists; and take initiative, not just wait for instructions and timelines. Strategists will need to shift their role from doers to builders who develop and mature organizational competencies and facilitators who coordinate and advance the process and share the ownership with business areas. This means strategy work should not be seen as a project, a piece of work that happens at a point in time. Business areas will need to invest just as much as strategists do and start to manage work more strategically.

Conclusion

The evolution of the role of strategists is not clear and straightforward. In many public organizations, it is not defined or even understood. In fact, most likely their titles don’t include the word “strategist.” They may be called strategic planning officers, senior advisors or consultants, planning analysts, performance managers, etc. But the essence of their work is consistent, that is, to fulfil a specific function as part of the organizational planning and review process.

The evolving role may also overlap with other functions or areas within the organization. For example, the scanning function may overlap with the work in social and economic forecast and analysis. The emphasis on prioritization and resource reallocation may overlap with existing work in budgeting. Developing internal expertise in strategy management may overlap with the human resource function. So it is important to start the conversation as early as possible, explain the value of strategy work and the role and explore opportunities for collaboration.

The evolving role also requires a shift in strategists’ mentality. In the traditional and current role of strategists, most of the work unfolds as part of the annual process. With evolution, strategists need to focus more on the value: the value to the community, the organization, and also the work of strategy management. If we define good strategists under the traditional and current role as being able to strike a balance between the process and engagement, then under the evolved role, the focus should lean toward engaging people, facilitating a learning environment, and making the annual planning process as agile and fluid as possible.

Organizational issues would not be addressed if you as the manager didn’t understand or see the need for an evolving role for strategists. As you plan the strategy management work in your organization to sustain your organization’s innovation and adaptation to changing conditions, the redesign of the strategist’s role would be something worthwhile to consider next.

 

KEL WANG is a passionate advocate and practitioner of strategy and performance. He also serves on the ICMA Performance Management Advisory Committee. (kel.wang@outlook.com)

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