Moving Forward by Working Backward: From Overall Strategy to Daily Tasks

In the pages of management books and in the bottomless sea of online materials, there is no shortage of five-part frameworks and six-step plans for devising and executing organizational strategy. But Joshua J. Marcuse, Senior Advisor for Policy Innovation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has accomplished the feat of sifting through much of this material to develop a system for translating strategy to action that makes sense for innovators working in government. And judging from the standing-room only crowd that came to hear his remarks on aligning actions with strategy, there is huge demand within government for this knowledge.

Josh started off by explaining that strategic planning answers a lot of “how” questions, like how to to translate vision into concrete tasks and how measure progress within your organization. Recognizing that many (and perhaps most) projects and goals within government these days are labeled as “strategic,” he shared a useful definition of strategy as well as some clarification on what strategy is not. Strategy, Josh explained, is a pattern of decisions and actions intended to cause a change. It is not, he stressed, just a to-do list. A good approach to strategy will have ten elements that fall under the following four categories:

  1. Concept: What needs to be done and why?
  2. Context: What is the situation?
  3. Courses of Action: What steps are you going to take?
  4. Choices: What decisions are you going to make?

With those four elements in place, Josh led the group on rapid-fire review of the ten elements, starting with vision and mission, which fall under the “concept” category. In its simplest form, an organization’s vision is how it believes the world will look after it has accomplished the change it is working for. The organization’s mission is what it will do or become to accomplish this change. In concrete terms, a vision could be something like a world in which all children are literate, while a mission would be something like improving the teaching of reading skills in elementary schools. Josh counseled that in crafting vision and mission statements, we should “try to make it very brass tacks.” The best mission and vision statements are both concrete and inspiring (think “man on the moon” versus “space exploration).

In laying out the two elements that fall under the “context” category, the Five Ws and SWOT analysis, Josh explained that the who, what, when, where, and why of any strategy may be framed differently depending on a person’s position and interests, and this can change the definition of success for your organization. A solid SWOT analysis (SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) also will provide useful information for understanding the context in which you are seeking to implement your strategy.

With concept and context clarified, you are ready to move on to planning your courses of action. Josh identified three elements under the “courses of action” category: goals, action, and metrics. He noted that many achievement-oriented folks are familiar with the idea of SMART goals, but he pointed out that the definitions of what SMART stands for vary from source to source—sometimes the “A” stands for accountable, sometimes achievable, and so on. But he stressed that the important thing was to pick the definition of SMART that works for you and your team, and stick to it when setting goals. When talking about action, Josh cautioned that sometimes teams confuse outcomes and outputs. Outcomes are the conditions that need to be present for a goal to be accomplished. Outputs are the concrete outcomes of your actions. Your outputs should lead to (or at least be correlated with) your desired outcomes. On the topic of metrics for outputs and outcomes, Josh shared an important warning: metrics, when improperly used, can make us think we are doing the right thing while actually accelerating us in the wrong direction. Approach metrics with humility.

Once you have decided on the needed courses of action, you need to make hard choices, taking into account the final three elements: priorities, resources, and timing. That usually means deciding what to cut. If the essence of strategy is decision, actions that are out of alignment with the goals are candidates for scrutiny. There may be many daily actions that do not directly contribute to achieving your mission. They may be necessary, but you should look to minimize them where possible.

One of the beauties of Josh’s framework is that it is scalable, allowing units as small as individual employees or as large as entire federal departments to ask big questions about why they exist, and then work backward through the steps of vision, mission, goals, outcomes, and outputs to arrive at actions, so that when we walk through the door each morning to do our work, we can see more clearly how our activities contribute to the bigger picture and move us forward.

From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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Ben Lesser

This is the most brilliantly concise blueprint I have read on why and how to create a strategy. Questions: 1) What are the other 8 “concept” elements? 2) What was the venue for Marcuse’s talk? 3) I couldn’t google his full talk–is it available somewhere? Thanks.

Levi Jones

Ben, all ten elements that Joshua covered are woven into this write-up, although I could have highlighted them a bit more clearly. They are:
1. Vision and 2.Mission (concept category)
3. 5Ws and 4. SWOT (context category)
5. Goals/outcomes/outputs, 6. actions, and 7. metrics (courses of action category)
8. Priorities, 9. resources, and 10. timing (choices category)

Joshua’s talk was given at one of the breakout sessions from the NextGen Summit, which ended yesterday.

His PowerPoint presentation will be posted on GovLoop sometime soon.