• Frank Lippert

Think Differently About Your Strategic Plan

After attending SMPS Build Business 2020 and listening in on a session titled “The New Rules of Strategic Planning” presented by Ann Thompson, I was inspired to read Playing to Win, by AG Lafley and Roger Martin. As expected from the presentation, there are some big take-aways in this book for A/E/C. It takes some translating; most of the business scenarios in the book are product marketing focused; whereas, A/E/C is service marketing focused. I’m not convinced that everything in the 260 pages can be applied to our unique corner of the world, but it points out some different, dare I say, refreshing, ways to look at business strategy.


Below are “Six Strategy Traps” mentioned in the book. The authors readily admit that there is no perfect strategy. But, these six strategies are unveiled every year and do not hit the mark. As I read them, I felt like I was reading several different A/E/C companies’ strategies. How many of these can you identify with?


1. The do-it-all strategy: Making everything a priority and failing to be selective or make good business choices.


This seems to be the strategy behind many multi-disciplinary firms, those that operate in several different markets and several different geographies. We know we can’t really do it all; why do we keep trying this?


2. The Don Quixote strategy: Attacking competitive “walled cities” or taking on the biggest competitor first.


If your strategy begins with taking out one of the big guys (AECOM, WSP, Stantec), even from just your localized market, you might be Don Quixote. I’ve seen this strategy from small firms that are break-aways from larger firms. “We’ll show them” is not an effective strategy.


3. The Waterloo strategy: starting wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors at the same time.


In A/E/C this seems like a case where a CEO with a big ego is driving strategy. I’ve seen it manifest as the founder is finally retiring (for real) and they want to drive up the size of the business before they get bought out or they think this strategy will let them leave on a high note.


4. The something-for-everyone strategy: attempting to capture all market sectors, in all geographies, and keep all clients and employees really happy.


I call this strategy marketing’s worst nightmare. Behind it are one of two types of leadership. One, a group of partners or principals that can’t come to consensus, so everyone gets their way. Or two, a weak leader that cannot say ‘no’ effectively, so all the divisions get their way. In both cases, it results in a mess on the marketing front, and ultimately for the business.


5. The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: developing high-level aspirations (vision) and mission statements that never get translated into where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems.


Where-to-play and how-to-win choices are what we traditionally call strategy tactics in A/E/C. Too often a leadership team comes up with imperious visions and a zillion BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), but no meat. They have no idea where to start or what it looks like when you get there. Usually the where to start and how to get there are left to middle management. We all know how that ends.


6. The program-of-the-month strategy: settling for the generic industry strategies, in which all competitors are chasing the same clients, geographies, and segments the same way.


I call this lazy people’s strategy. Rather than invest the time and energy to create something great, they basically do what’s always been done. An approach like this is a poor replacement for the hard work of true strategy – and make no mistake, strategy is hard work. “Program of the Month” is a self-perpetuating cycle of doom, but in a rich market it can keep the firm afloat for years.


You may see bits of each of these strategies in your firm or, at a minimum, you read that list and pointed to a prior employer or two. It doesn’t have to be that way. The book has interesting ideas for how to approach strategy differently and more effectively. While the book uses examples from skin products to baby diapers, with a little thought and creative modeling, it can be adapted to design and construction. These are interesting times; they demand different solutions. If your strategic plan or process for strategic planning didn’t really help you much through the pandemic, arguably the biggest disruption to business in a long time, then it might be time to look outside A/E/C and try something different.





Interested in trying a new method for strategic planning and shaking things up in your firm? Please give me a call. Frank Lippert (503-310-2949) is a partner with GO Strategies, LLC. GO helps firms with strategic and scenario planning across the U.S.


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