Martyn Drake: Add strategic thinking to your battle plan

There's a qualitative difference between strategic and tactical planning, and doing more of the former can open up new opportunities

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

A couple of years ago I had lunch with the leader of a major charity who described how his training and information division cost £2m a year and recovered less than half of that in course fees.

"We want to get this stuff out there," he explained, "and we don’t want the ticket price to put people off, but the pressure on fundraising means that might have to reduce the number of courses anyway."

He was describing a classic situation of how tactical thinking creates a self-limiting strategy: a small-scale example of a much more widespread issue within the sector.

Any strategy is based on a series of assumptions: that this approach will deliver these outcomes; that these outcomes will help to create the world we want to see, and so forth.

But there are often far more subtle assumptions at play as well, like my friend’s: "If we charge more for this course, fewer people will come."

These assumptions keep us locked in the past, because they’re based on how we’ve always done things; on the supposition that we should be sending more of the same positive ripples out across the pond of society, rather than making a much bigger splash by doing things that are fundamentally different or entirely new.

This is the difference between tactical and strategic thinking, and it’s the reason that Netflix is no longer expanding the catalogue of DVDs and VHS cassettes that it was posting to customers as recently as 2007.

For the training example, the tactical question is: "How do we sustain these courses?"

But the strategic questions might be: "How could we deliver as much basic knowledge as we can at virtually zero cost to us?" and "How could we share our expertise in a way that adds so much value that people will be happy to pay far more than it costs us to deliver?"

They are simple questions, but clearly not questions my chief executive friend had asked his team.

It’s often the case that people who've invested financially can be far more committed to implementing what they’ve learned and more interested in collaborating and sharing their results afterwards.

And it’s always the case that if a delivery model earns more than it costs it can be scaled up quickly and sustainably, either by the charity itself or by others. It will probably also reach far more people and have far greater impact than a model constrained by a funding dependency.

For some, this might question the precepts of charity, of raising money to do things for free, but the choices individual charities make around identity versus impact are exactly that: strategic choices.

There’s a qualitative difference between strategy and tactical planning, one that can open up a world of opportunity when it’s properly understood.

Tactical planning is incremental. It starts from where you are, with what you have, doing what you do, and works out how much further you can get.

It might look five, even 10 years out, but if it starts with those same assumptions it’s still a tactical plan.

Strategy starts with a bold ambition and works back from there, developing the measures that define long-term success and using a blank sheet of paper and an open mind to think through the big, strategic choices it has about how best to hit those measures.

It is fundamentally a creative process and one that always starts with asking "how could we…?" instead of "how do we…?"

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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