Challenging one’s vision and strategy somehow seems counter-intuitive, especially when so much time, effort and thought has gone into putting it together. But strategy is about achieving a competitive, and ideally a dominant positioning, and challenge it you must.

Stress test your strategy during formulation, prior to finalisation and regularly during the implementation phase, with semi-formal and formal reviews at designated times. Do this and strategy quickly alters from being an annual 'necessary evil' to an essential and practical process which is key to your business success.

Professional Service Firms (PSFs) find determining and reviewing vision and strategy a real bind. A necessary evil that has to be done each year (or every so often). Unfortunately it does not often get the real attention and passion it deserves. For this reason it is also often not properly stress-tested and reviewed.

Address the basics: I often come across firms which have completed their strategy but are still not clear on basics like:

  • what category of clients they will focus on?
  • what industry sectors will they concentrate on?
  • what geographic areas are relevant for them?
  • how will they deliver service (in a unique and differentiated way)?
  • what cultural attributes or guiding principles do they need in place to ensure they will achieve this strategy?
  • what is their people strategy and focus to deliver on this?
  • what is their brand strategy and level of understanding around brand?

Get everyone involved: before your strategy is signed off, make sure these and related fundamentals are signed off. Also ensure every key person (for instance every partner and support services manager) has had a proper chance to study it and provide input. When they do provide such input it should be clear that they are being listened to. This is the only way to ensure proper buy-in and a chance of passionate support during implementation. You are also effectively testing your strategy every time one of them studies it and comments.

Risk Review: also before final sign-off, it is wise to undertake a Risk Review to identify the key risks which may prevent your strategy being implemented, what the likelihood is of them occurring and what mitigation steps need to be taken to counter them. This can usually be summed up in a short one- or two-page tabular report which is handy to check back on from time to time.

On-the-go testing: once a strategy has been agreed it can find itself gathering dust on the proverbial shelf. This however is when it should be regularly tested and used. There is a simple way to do this. Every time an important decision (like a hiring, new office, brand or total website revamp or new practice area) is considered, test each of these against the vision, strategy and guiding principles you have determined. If something does not make sense, you can do something about it, or make a careful note to review the strategy during the semi-formal or formal reviews.

Reporting back –  ensure regular report-backs on implementation. By doing so properly you are effectively testing your strategy during implementation. If this is not done by those charged with implementing, others will quickly lose interest. There is a challenge here; in my experience nothing switches partners off quicker than long, tedious ‘chapter and verse’ reviews and updates. Only the high points should be touched on. It needs to be kept fresh.

Formal reviews – chances are if you undertake these steps, by the time you come to do your more formal strategy reviews, you will know precisely where the issues lie, what needs re-considering and what is defunct. In my experience firms that do this find they get more value out of the strategy reviews than they ever did out of the original strategy development.

What I would recommend is take out your vision and strategy. Re-read it. Make up your own list of things that are unclear or should be tested about it. If you are not already doing this, you could find this simple step an invaluable exercise. It will also ensure you are richly contributing not only to strategy formulation but to implementation as well.

[I will be writing on this important subject in more detail in our upcoming Edge International Review and will post a link to the article – all the best, Sean]