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Why templates don’t guarantee a good strategy

Michael Bernard - House of Strategy

It’s not impossible to build a good strategy using a template, but in practice, it is often much harder than doing it without one.

Some templates come from head office in a large organisation, to ensure consistency. Other templates come from well-intentioned books, keen to put the right tools into the hands of those trying to craft a strategy.  A quick Google search for ‘HR strategy templates’ provides many examples freely available for download. Many of these templates look well put together, and it can be tempting for those responsible for producing strategy to turn to them for answers.

However, what is so bad about them? They bring consistency to peoples’ work; they ensure that nothing is forgotten; in a large organisation, having a common template means that it is easy to check how well different functions (HR, Sales, Finance) have aligned their work with one other. Templates might also be key in showing how HR functions within the same organisation have approached their planning. Templates may bring a high quality feel to the layout; they ensure people without experience in strategy can provide decent input; they ensure that appropriate tools are used, and so on. They can also be a good check to see what may have been omitted from plans.

So there are many genuine upsides to having templates. Many people responsible for creating strategies have used templates before, filling them in as carefully and as accurately as possible. A few will have experience of  designing strategy templates to be used in global organisations, trying to strike the right balance between prescription and making room for the freedom to develop thinking.

Nevertheless, results are almost always the same: bland, unoriginal and devoid of innovation. Why is this, given that those who fill in templates are usually highly competent, experienced and knowledgeable? A template provides an illusion – that strategy is easy, that anyone can fill in a document and a well-formed strategy will be delivered. If someone does not have much experience in writing strategies, this may seem very appealing.  However, if they have tried it before, they probably found that the results were disappointing.

The other main reason why templates don’t guarantee good strategies is found in the way that strategy should be put together. Good strategies start with some essential inputs:

  • A good grasp of purpose, vision and mission, the essential foundations of strategy.
  • High quality data about the organisation.
  • Great information about the environment in which the organisation operates.
  • SMART  (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) goals that the strategy must address.
  • The broader organisational strategy (if it is a function, such as HR, that is writing the strategy).

The best strategies are based on a person, or team, taking these inputs and having the time and latitude to do the really hard work of thinking. Writing a good strategy is a really hard thing to do. Anyone can write a bad one. Anyone armed with a template can write a bad one dressed up to look professional.

A template presents the writer with a set of preformed ideas: where to look for information (in a large organisation, it may provide pre-digested information), what tools to use for the job, what is in-scope for the strategy, and what is not, how the information should be presented, the narrative flow to be used and also the way that conclusions should be presented. The downside of  resorting to templates is that the freedom of the writer to make these decisions is removed.

A strategy should be one of the most important pieces of work done in the organisation.. It should be crafted for the organisation or function with care and diligence. It is like a hand-made bespoke piece of furniture. Using a template makes it become a mass-produced piece, just like all the others.

A sure sign of a templated strategy is the use of standard tools, such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental), without any evidence that the outputs from those tools have been taken on board and used. The majority of strategies contain a SWOT analysis but include no plans in the strategy to exploit the opportunities identified, or to mitigate the threats listed. Frameworks such as SWOT should be a good tool, providing valuable insights, but they are almost always wasted.

Treating templates with scepticism does not however negate the need for certain elements to  appear in strategy. The first is that there should always be a one-page executive summary. This does not have to use a specific template, but if the strategy cannot be summarised on one page, it is not ready for examination and approval. Most people will not read past the first page, and therefore the key points have to be stated there.

Other things that a good strategy will do include: explaining how it is consistent with the organisation’s purpose, vision and mission, laying out the factors that have been examined and why they are important and detailing the high level strategic intent and strategic actions that will be taken to meet the smart goals. Good strategy will consider the risks and dependencies for execution. It will have designed a management system so that progress can be reported, and the strategy checked regularly to make sure it is still fit for purpose. A template is not needed for any of these things.

So, organisations should cast off the shackles of a strategy template, be bold, do their own work, and take pride in it. Those creating strategies should dive deep into the facts and think hard about the options they have, considering which of those they will choose, and which elements they will deliberately not pursue. They should make clear choices about their direction and how they will get there. The straitjacket of a template will not help organisations. They should use the right tools, in the right way. Although it can be a tempting thing to do, it’s invigorating and liberating when a strategy  is created from first principles, and the strategy is almost always better for it.

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