WOW. What an experience that was. It’s kind of surreal to sit here writing this, on the back of one of the most exciting days we’ve ever had here at Cascade – but yet, here we are!
The Strategy Fest was a one-day extravaganza that was months in the making. From an idea on the back of a napkin to a global event that brought together business leaders from around the world to discuss what strategy means to them. – it exceeded all of our expectations. The reception this event got was overwhelming. If you missed out or just want to watch it again, click here to access the recordings of the entire Strategy Fest!
The sheer amount of insight and wisdom that emerged from our incredible speakers and engaging participants was enough to make anyone’s brain hurt. So we thought that we would use this article to summarize some of the major takeaways from the event so that even if you weren’t there in person, you can still soak up some of the magic that transpired.
Below you’ll find our recap of some of the themes we picked up across the event. And then in the days to come, we’ll be releasing individual posts that tackle each insight in more detail – so stay tuned for those!
But for now, let’s dig into some of the key themes that dominated the festival.
What is Strategy?
Interestingly, even the word itself caused a bit of a stir throughout the festival. As a term, it carries so much depth and weight of meaning for people and there is no one way to think about what strategy is.
Ilana Rosen quoted Clay Christiansen’s definition: “Strategy is two parts, two things. One is a clearly defined destination. So you know where you're going, both qualitatively and quantitatively. And second, are the directions for how to get to that place.”
Jessica Nordlander created an adjacent but slightly different distinction by saying that “Strategy consists of only two pieces, the process of developing strategy and the process of executing against that strategy.”
Thibault Mesqui described strategy more colloquially: “Strategy shouldn’t be all the nitty gritty details. It should be your idea, your long-term vision, and a few building blocks to get there.”
Carlos Trad made the analogy that strategy is a noun and a verb – it’s something you create and it’s something that you do. “We're always doing strategy. We may be executing our strategy and we may not be necessarily developing it from scratch. But at the same time, it's still strategy.”
And those are just a few ways that our speakers defined what strategy is. It was also fascinating to see the varied definitions that our participants brought with them, which really covered the spectrum.
We have no doubt that people’s personal definitions shifted because of this event and hopefully, the word is now soaked with meaning in your own mind as well.
The subtle distinctions and verbiage show that this field is so much more nuanced than we often like to admit. To be honest, that’s why we love what we do so much. Strategy is this ever-evolving organism that aims to codify some of the best practices that separate a world-changing company from one that doesn’t survive.
This festival was a testament to that vision. If you were to work through each of the sessions, you’d slowly build a holistic understanding of what modern-day business strategy actually means, and you’d gain a toolkit for going out and executing on that strategy – which is just as important.
“Strategy alone won't bring success. It takes all those people who can execute it” - Matt Ryan.
The delicate balance between the higher-level thinking and the on-the-ground execution is what makes this field endlessly fascinating. Every single speaker has added a component to our understanding and interpretation of what strategy is. All that remains is for us to take those pieces and put them into action.
Strategy at an Enterprise Level
Another common topic that came through strongly all day was the idea that strategy cannot live in a silo or an ivory tower. For so long, the very nature of strategy has sat exclusively with the suits and the executives who make decisions from a distance and expect everything to happen exactly as they planned on their PowerPoint presentation.
This could not be farther from the truth.
For strategy to be effective in the modern world, it is imperative that the dual responsibilities of developing strategy and executing strategy lie through the organization. There is so much wisdom and practical insight that can be leveraged if you can empower everyone to play a role in charting the course that the business is going on.
For some executives, this means letting go of their pride and actually getting their hands dirty. Like in the case of Matt Ryan, his second day at Starbucks he worked as a barista in a Starbucks store. Initiatives like this develop a stronger understanding of the organization and provide a first-hand look at the customer experience. This experience strengthens the strategic decision-making process as there is more knowledge and data to draw from.
It’s this groundedness and diversity of thought that leads to a strategy that is robust to changing circumstances and a fast-moving world.
“So what you probably need to do is involve as many people as possible to tap into the collective intelligence, democratize the process, increase the understanding and ensure ownership of the execution.” - Jessica Nordlander
In addition, when you make strategy an enterprise-wide endeavor, you empower your people to pull in the same direction. It makes your change management that much easier if those functions were part of the journey it took to get there. Instead of forcing a vision down their throats, you are co-creating the vision with them. And that’s insanely powerful.
“When you co-create strategy, strategy itself can become a change management tool.” - Ilana Rosen
Without this enterprise-level understanding, your strategy can actually disjoint the entire mission.
Tamara Grominsky, in her brilliant talk, said that “confusion across teams is not only creating disjointed experiences, but it’s also creating friction among stakeholders”.
Customers can feel it. They can feel when the strategy is not in sync and it impacts the overall experience. Strategy must live throughout every team so it can breathe life into those customer interactions.
Another key pattern that emanated from the various discussions was the importance of putting the customer first. Now, every business says this, of course, it’s become a marketing cliché, but we were taken aback by just how ardently all of our experts pushed this point.
When you focus all of your attention and resources on delivering an exceptional experience for the right customer, 90% of the battle is won. This is the most important part of business and yet we are so easily distracted from this mission. We might start off with noble intentions, but over time we can slip very easily towards a warped view of what actually matters.
Our strategic direction should be a compass that we use to continually re-align our operations with what is best for the customer. The moment our strategy strays from this, we’ve lost. The customer is everything.
“The truth of the matter is revenue growth doesn’t come from spreadsheets or even from long-range plans. It comes from customers.” - Matt Ryan.
So how do we do this? The key is to develop a deep understanding of the customers we serve and the problems that we are solving. And this doesn’t come easy. It requires a sophisticated combination of knowledge acquisition, real client interactions, data collection, analysis, candid conversations, testing, and so much more. It requires a level of focus well beyond what typically gets discussed in business circles.
“Customer knowledge is really, really important and something that you really need to get focused on at an enterprise level.” - Matt Ryan.
But if you do this right and let your customers drive your strategy, you set yourself up to find that perfect Goldilocks zone where the value proposition you offer is an absolute no-brainer. And when you map that to the right market – you’re off to the races.
Any other focus is a mere distraction. Strategy is about the customer.
Diversity of Thought
Sometimes we design the tools, and sometimes the tools design us. In the case of strategy, we seem to have gained an unhealthy dependence on the sorts of financial models, business frameworks, and strategic thinking that is commonplace in the ivory-tower business schools. The vast range of tools that are a part of the industry cannon is something to behold. And they are all useful in their own way.
But what these tools have done? unknowingly, self-select those people that go into strategy as those finance-minded people who thrive with a spreadsheet or a forecast. And so, it might be said that strategy has become more homogenous than it should be.
We heard many of our speakers talk passionately about the power of diversity when it comes to strategy and it really rings true for us here at Cascade as well. You really want to include a range of different experiences, backgrounds, disciplines, and ways of thinking into your strategic planning because that gives you a true, holistic view of your organization.
When you rely on a financial focus only, the conventions of traditional fundraising and shareholder management will push you into a place where strategy is driven by aspirational spreadsheets, rather than the reality of the landscape on the ground.
“It's really good when you can have a diversity of people at the table, a diversity of perspectives. And I'm not just talking about the usual definitions of difference. I mean diversity in every sense of the word so that you can then have the best disruptive thinking about the customer possible.” - Matt Ryan.
A strategy can only truly serve stakeholders if we have other voices at the table. Otherwise, we build an echo chamber of our own design that doesn’t actually help anybody.
An organization’s ability to apply diversity of thought in these instances is a competitive advantage. It’s what is going to set apart good from great, and we hope that through events like this we can highlight that strategy is so much broader than a Porter’s 5 Forces model. It’s a living, breathing thing that can animate an entire organization if we let it.
We shouldn’t need to tell you that we live in an uncertain world, because the events of the last 18 months have made that abundantly clear. But for some reason, we can easily be blind to that fact when we plot our long-term strategic plans. In our search for a stable narrative to tie our plans to, we can very easily find ourselves becoming inflexible and married to certain ideas or visions.
A robust strategic mindset is able to stay true to an overall vision and mission, while still remaining agile enough to adjust to changing circumstances and dynamics. Strategy needs to be dynamic in this way if it is going to stay relevant.
“You've got to be able to move quickly. You've got to be able to pivot. You've got to be able to be nimble and fast.” - Ken Miller.
The art of being able to, iterate on an idea, test it in the marketplace, and then refine it is absolutely crucial.
This is straight out of the ‘Lean Startup’ methodology and it’s a core component of what modern business needs to be about. But it’s easier said than done.
To do this well, you have to have buy-in from the top that creates an environment where it's ok to fail. You want to give your employees the space to try new things and learn from mistakes because that’s where innovation comes from. Companies who punish failure in a misguided attempt to encourage excellence – end up losing out on the magic that comes when you aren’t afraid to try things.
This mindset is one that we should all be looking to instil, not only in ourselves but in our business interactions. Because when your company culture encourages this sort of fast iteration, it breeds an agile company that can adapt to whatever the market decides to throw at it.
The best strategy in the world means nothing if it is not communicated effectively. It’s as simple as that. One of the key discussions that echoed throughout the festival is this idea of communicating your strategy in a way that shapes action. Thibault Mesqui said that you must “make your strategy based on a vision. Make sure you know where you're coming from, honestly, put your tactics in place, share, share, and share your strategy with everyone."
It doesn’t help anyone if your strategy lives in PowerPoint presentations and PDF documents. It needs to be constantly communicated throughout your organization to remind everyone of the journey that they’re on. It needs to be the shining light in the darkness, guiding decisions and questioning how we think about the work we do.
And it’s not just about 'what' the strategy is. It’s about the ‘why’. Your internal communications should focus on sharing why the strategy is the way it is, and what we stand to gain as a business if everyone aligns towards the same direction. It’s simple human psychology and it can be incredibly effective if you change the way you think about strategy within the organization.
“Strategy is really an internal communications department.” - Matt Ryan.
What if we applied the same rigor that we implement when planning to speak to potential investors, and used that same storytelling skill with our internal teams? Imagine what might happen then?
Strategy is only scalable when you can create the internal communication lines that take your vision into every crack and crevasse of your organization. Without this, it becomes yet another leadership platitude that looks good on the website but doesn’t actually inform how a business is evolving.
What's to Come?
We have to stop there because we could go on all day. There was just so much good stuff that came out of this festival and we’ll be delving into everything in detail over the coming days – so don’t miss out on that.
But for now, we’ll draw the festival to a close. We’re immensely grateful for everyone who was involved in making it a success. We never quite imagined that it would have the impact that it did and it makes us a bit giddy to think about the ripple effects this festival is going to have for businesses around the world.
Here at Cascade, we are passionate about bringing strategy to life within organizations and we hope that through this event – you’ve been able to take something home with you that can transform your organization and push it to the next level. If that’s the case, then we’ve done our job.
And so, with a tear in our eye, we bid farewell to the world’s first-ever online strategy festival. Until next year!