Making choices

Strategy isn’t about coming up with cool ideas. It’s about making disciplined choices in response to key questions.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series about developing strategy. The other installments are about the why of ministry, answering where and how, and getting organized.

Determining a strategy is all about making choices. That idea sounds simple, but it challenges the notion that strategy is all about coming up with cool ideas.

In “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works,” business theorist Roger Martin and Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley argue that strategy is making disciplined choices in response to key questions.

Church is not about winning, selling soap or making money. Books written by sports, military or business strategists can be difficult to interpret for our context. After teaching from Martin and Lafley’s work for a few years, I have come to translate their questions as follows:

  1. Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
  2. Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
  3. How will we serve? What activities are needed?
  4. What capacities do we need to do “it”?
  5. What management systems are required to ensure the capacities are in place?

These questions cascade from one to the other, back and forth. Changing the answer to one will necessarily shape the options available in response to the others. Responding to the first question about “why” causes us to look deeply into my vocation as well as my organization’s. John Kotter calls this the “big opportunity.”

Yet “why” does not tell us where to serve. “Why” does not give much direction in terms of staying or going from a particular place or institution. “Where” may have more impact on how we work than “why,” yet both are important. Management systems and capacities are in service to “how” and must align with “why.”

The various organizations I have served could often answer one of these questions but not the others. For example, the hospital had outstanding management systems. The budget was closely monitored, and we had good cash balances. Managers were expected to comply with every regulation. Internal auditors reviewed our files to insure that we were documenting that compliance. But most managers did not care about “why,” “where” or “how” I worked. If those questions arose the response was to hire a consultant to help answer those questions.

My disposition is to move quickly through questions about “why” and “where” and settle in on “how” concerns. I am most comfortable engaging practical questions. I greatly benefit from being in a team of folks who have dispositions to ask each of the five questions. We push each other in a way that the entire enterprise is stronger. Navigating such tension requires respect, but can be very fruitful.

Effective strategy is not a beautifully written plan or “cool” ideas. It is ongoing engagement of all of Martin and Lafley’s questions. Writing plans can help clarify thinking and create structures of accountability, but the strategy is in engaging the questions and connecting all of the responses.

What questions do you most often ask? Where can you find colleagues and friends keenly interested in other questions? How and when will you continue to answer the five questions?