As the CEO of a foundation for the last 7 years I haven’t kept up with all the management consulting or international development jargon I used to speak. Every now and again I have that frisson of panic when I hear a new one – TOMS or Agile Something or Graduation – thinking I have missed some magical new tool that has revolutionised the world of social impact or management. Then I remind myself to look under the letters and in ten times out of ten I have not only heard of the concept but done or seen it myself many times over, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, but always learning and eventually being in a position to make a judgement call about its value in a particular context. I just don’t recognise its recent wrapping.
Good leaders integrate their years of explicit and tacit knowledge over time, bringing it to bear on challenges and decisions facing their current organisation in a form unique and relevant to that organisation, time and context. That is what we call iterative strategy, constantly informed by common sense and good judgement. Bottom line for leaders – read, learn and network to keep abreast of trends – but trust yourself and keep a healthy scepticism of the Emperor’s new clothes.
Good consultants add their good judgement and common sense to that of their clients, especially those consultants who have been CEOs or Board members themselves. Good judgement mitigates the risks of decisive action but capitalises on its benefits and doesn’t wait for perfection or bureaucracy to undermine innovation and progress.
Even the best leaders can be new to a field and want a consultant to help them sprint up the learning curve, or to help lift them above the day to day trees to refocus on the woods. In the case of charities, trustees may not yet have the leaders in place and need help getting to that stage.
All leaders constantly engage in iterative strategy and don’t need the latest management consulting fads to bring about change. As they do they learn and feed that learning back into their organisations and make decisions, whether on mission, product, delivery, people or systems of any kind. Sometimes this takes great courage and tough calls, like a full business model review due to a policy change or poor performance, and sometimes it takes minor tweaks. Seeking and using data constantly – measured, sought out and intuited – helps leaders to constantly improve performance – this is iterative strategy. Crucially it is also a team effort, which is why the best leaders empower their people to share their views, knowledge and concerns on an ongoing basis. Leaders also need to build a culture of trust and delivery, so that they can comfortably delegate the day to day operational functions in order to keep focused on the bigger picture.
A formal strategic process or multi-year strategy is important to focus and align teams on a shared mission and vision, and top line metrics, but are no replacement for ongoing iterative strategy. Organisations who aren’t flexible and responsive to change, who don’t use their people’s common sense and judgement to continuously improve will fall foul of the slings and arrows in the real world eventually.