I've always been fascinated by maps, be they early representations of the world, made by those trying to understand it for different reasons, or more up-to-date Ordnance Survey ones. So perhaps that's why I'm passionate about this first step of the strategy journey. This post describes why understanding your landscape should always be your first port of call.
What is context and why is it important?
Your context is the set of circumstances in which you operate. For an organisation, this really means anything that might have an impact on the work that it does. That could be customer or client markets, sector regulation, government policy, or global changes in needs and expectations. Capturing this broader context - and understanding your operating environment or landscape - is an essential first step in your strategy.
Understanding context for strategy
You might think you know a lot already about your operating context, but we live in a world where things are changing all the time, from technology that enhances internal policies and processes to global geopolitical shifts. So it's always worth spending time reviewing this knowledge and creating shared understanding of that context. A successful context piece will enable you to make decisions that draw on a strong evidence base, and to share the reasons for those decisions with others. To help you on your way, we've identified five simple steps to create this context.
1. Be creative
It may seem counterintuitive when we're talking about desk research, but you should aim to think beyond the expected when you're gathering your evidence. For organisational data, look past the usual management information and see if you can get real views from real people. For external information, think about more than your immediate industry or sector. The rise of AI, for example, has been talked about for years, but so far has only changed a few workplaces. We know, however, that the impact is likely to be much greater in the future, changing the roles we do, as well as how and where we work. Ignoring this would be foolish, even if your organisation isn't currently affected. There are likely to be other developments that may not seem obvious, but might prove to be important. Keep an open mind!
2. Speak to people
Gathering information about your context is an excellent way to meet new people, within your organisation and across the broader sector. Seek out people from different backgrounds, with different expertise and in different roles to bring new perspectives to the questions. Ask them what they think is important now, and the trends that are likely to be important in the future. This will provide a great set of resources to start your research at the same time as extending your networks.
3. Dig deep
Now it gets exciting! Use the intelligence you've gathered during steps one and two to set the tone for your enquiry, and then follow the leads that these sources generate. While you're on your journey, don't forget more basic resources. Government department news and policies, local strategic and economic plans, non-departmental public bodies, sector bodies, think tanks and charities are all great sources of information, as are sector and industry publications. For internal information, look for evidence of existing strengths and signals of what future opportunities might emerge, from staff surveys, market research and data trends. Make good notes while you research - and make sure you can track back to each source.
4. Make connections
Steps one to three will have given you a set of notes that provide an amazing amount of information. Now it's time for some quiet contemplation. As you read your notes, jot down key themes and start to group ideas under some main headings. Doing this will help you identify trends and start to make connections. I find the best thing to do to unpack and understand what's most important in the context is to review the research on my own, and then to test ideas and connections with others.
5. Present your findings
Finally, you need to collate your ideas and come up with a useful way for others to digest it. Nobody wants to read a thesis as a strategy context, so think about different tools you can use to present the evidence. This could be as simple as a table or graph, or you could try online tools that can map a whole range of ideas. I've used coggle.it a number of times and found it a) easy to use and b) easy for audiences to understand. End as you started by being creative in how you present your findings.
The context piece for a strategy should build the foundations for the rest of the strategy process, on which your decisions can be based. Following these five steps will help you achieve just that. Come back soon to read our top tips on the next stage - strategic prioritisation. And if you want to go back a step to the introduction, click here.
As an associate model, Lucidity Solutions Ltd and The Partnership Lab combine skills to create a service that supports all elements of strategy development and implementation, from understanding the operating context to working with stakeholders to implement your vision. Get in touch to find out more.