One of my 2017 New Year’s Resolutions was to write my first strategy blog post. It is December 31st…just a few hours left in 2017…so here goes!
I was a junior at Brown University when I first learned about strategy consulting. My dream at the time was to work in public service — as a judge, or a US Senator, or Governor of my home state of Ohio — but I needed a job for the coming summer that paid enough to cover rent. I had heard that investment banks and consulting firms both paid well, so I tagged along with some friends to a cocktail reception hosted by the Boston Consulting Group to learn more.
The event was at the Faculty Club, a place normally off limits to students. There was an extravagant spread of hors d’oeuvres and an army of self-confident 20-something associates in Ann Taylor and Brooks Brothers suits, chatting up my classmates. The event speaker was a recent Brown alumna who was a couple of years into a career as a consultant. She described the work she and her colleagues did as “advising CEOs and their leadership teams about the most important problems facing their businesses”. I couldn’t imagine what these recent alumni could tell a CEO about his or her business, but the job sounded glamorous, with the Fortune 500 clients, the weekly travel, and offices in places like London and Paris and Hong Kong.
When the speaker walked through the case interview process they used for hiring, which included answering questions like: “How would you estimate the number of pay phones in Manhattan?” and, “How many golf balls would fit inside the Empire State Building?” I made a mental note to withdraw from the LSAT prep course for which I had registered. I was going to get one of these coveted jobs as a strategy consultant. I could make money, get trained, and then get back to my original career plan.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and that night was an even bigger inflection point than it felt like at the time. It started the chain of events that landed me my first real job, as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, in Boston. This turned into 12 years, nearly 40 client cases, stints in London and Amsterdam. Bain paid to send me to Harvard Business School for my MBA, too, and while I met lots of people at HBS and had some incredible professors, the business education only reinforced what I’d already gotten at Bain.
My time as a consultant gave me lots of hard skills, experiences with many different industries and types of companies, and the opportunity to learn from incredible managers, teammates, and clients. But the greatest gift I got from Bain was the combination of an owner’s mindset, and an appreciation for elegantly simple strategy. The best Bainees learned to think about our clients’ businesses like they were our own; we knew who was winning and losing in our clients’ markets and why; we learned to always have a working hypothesis about what was changing in their markets, and the threats and opportunities those changes were creating; we felt uneasy until there was a strategy in place to create or extend competitive advantage in that evolving reality, organizational alignment to this strategy, and a practical plan to execute it.
As I moved on from the firm and went to build an in-house strategy function for a large private company, and as I began to volunteer on non-profit boards, and to advise friends on their businesses, I realized how few organizations have a solid, actionable strategy in place. I sat in meetings – often as the youngest voice in the room – dissatisfied with leadership’s ability to articulate what its customers’ needs were, where and how it was winning in the market today, what changes were on the horizon, and how it would carve out a sustainable competitive advantage for the future.
When these leaders asked me to help answer the questions I raised, I found myself somewhat unsure of how to do that work without a Bain team…How would we get a really solid grounding in the current situation? How would we generate a data-driven hypothesis about where the world was going and what it meant? The specific tools and approaches I had used at Bain seemed too big and daunting for stretched leadership teams and volunteer board members, who didn’t have the time or resources to commission market research, interview dozens of industry experts, build sophisticated financial models.
I wanted to find a way to help these organizations be as effective as possible so they could fulfill their missions, which varied from solving problems for their customers, to growing their businesses and creating jobs, to educating girls, to empowering children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Brainstorming about alternative approaches, I learned that that much of the knowledge that was needed to do the work already existed inside these organizations, in some form. Maybe it was in customer feedback cards, collected over years but never really analyzed; or a financial model built to support a big project then forgotten; or an industry survey the organization participated in regularly, which afforded access to competitor data they had never examined. The leaders in these organizations were passionate about what they did, and most read voraciously on what was going on in their spaces, networked with thought leaders, dreamed about the investments they’d like to be able to make. So the challenge became how to organize all of this information, identify and fill any gaps, work through the questions it raised, and then get explicit about their strategy so they could focus their teams, excite donors, and execute with excellence.
To help facilitate that process, I started to toy with simple frameworks and templates, loosely drawn from my Bain experience but right-sized for these situations. While the specifics evolved as I experimented, the fundamental questions I encouraged the teams to answer were always the same as those I had learned to focus on back at Bain.
What is the Point of Departure?
POD is about getting really clear on how your market clears today – including which customers matter, who is winning and losing with them and why, and about how you’re positioned – and then looking around the corner for changes that might create threats or opportunities.
What is the Point of Arrival?
POA is about imagining how customer needs will evolve, predicting how competitors will react, carving out a winning position by meeting needs of important customers in ways competitors can’t or won’t, and then investing to make yourself even harder for competitors to catch. The winning position could be the lowest cost/price for something many competitors offer, or it could be a product or service that has features or benefits no one else can duplicate. It’s almost never both.
What is the Roadmap?
Roadmap is about how to get from POD to that POA where you have sustainable competitive advantage – the 3-5 most critical initiatives that stand between your business today and the value proposition and demand activation model you’ll need to win tomorrow. It includes the simple math to tell you that the business case makes sense, and there will be a return on the investment in time and money it takes to get there.
As I coached teams through these questions, I also found that the discipline of forcing the work up to the level where it could fit on one single, readable page was essential. Partly, this is because one page can be committed to memory, stuck to the front of a notebook, put up on the wall, and referred to over and over again, in a way that a 30 or 40 page report can’t. But it’s also because strategy is fundamentally about making tradeoffs, and forcing the work to one page requires prioritization and creates focus. I have seen many 30 or 40 page strategic plans that included so much data that the big insights got lost; so many recommendations and initiatives that virtually anything anyone did might support some part of the plan, and yet there would be no way to deliver all of it. When everything is a priority, nothing is.
The first version of my STRATEGY ON A PAGE Model looked like a mountain, with a little mountaineer jumping from the POD to the POA. The next version looked like a boat where the ROADMAP waved like a flag from the mast. Finally, I settled on a simple table structure, reminiscent of the canvases that have become popular for their boxy simplicity. Perhaps because I now work for the largest B2B hand hygiene company in the United States, I realized one day last year that STRATEGY ON A PAGE could be shortened to the acronym S-O-A-P. I like that acronym because I believe wholeheartedly that having a STRATEGY ON A PAGE is good hygiene for any organization.
When someone approaches me now for help with a strategy project, instead of feeling paralyzed by needing to ‘do it right’, I am quick to offer my SOAP CANVAS and suggest they have a working session with their team to populate as much of it as they can, based on what they know already. Not only does this exercise reveal how much institutional knowledge already exists, it also highlights those places where there was presumed agreement, but different assumptions or conclusions were in place. Finally, a session like this grounds everyone on the destination for the work, the biggest gaps, and facilitates creating a plan to get it done.
After one such conversation, recently, a colleague pressed me to make the SOAP CANVAS available more broadly to anyone who might want to use it. I loved that idea. While I haven’t made it back to the public sector full time, I still feel called to maximize the positive impact I can have on the world. After nearly 20 years doing this work, I believe deeply that having an explicit strategy and a practical plan to execute it dramatically improves an organization’s likelihood of delivering on its mission and creating value.
So on this day at the close of 2017, with gratitude for my teachers at Bain and all of the organizations I have worked with over the last 18 years, I offer my SOAP CANVAS to anyone who can benefit from the good hygiene of STRATEGY ON A PAGE. Please feel free to download the SOAP CANVAS template and the SOAP CANVAS COACH I’ve included, which walks you through how to fill out the boxes. As you use these tools, please feel free to suggest improvements and share your experiences and any hacks you uncover along the way. Making strategy-making simple is hard, and I am always looking for any help I can get!