What Exactly Is The Strategy Role?

Santos and Josh know strategy

Santos and Josh know strategy

(This one’s a longer read, perhaps save it for later or have a read at home.  Cheers, Adam)

Hey Adam,

Wondering if you can help me – my organisation has created a Strategy role and put me in it. I’ve got some generic KRAs, but a lot of room to design my own ‘value-add’. Would appreciate your view on what you see the value of such a role is.

OK, let’s talk about what the role isn’t to start with.

The strategy role is not there to take sole accountability for delivering strategy!  

Do not take on this accountability alone, either explicitly, or implicitly. It’s going to be tempting as you’re going to want to show that you’re valuable, and the core areas will gladly hand you accountability for the future to get it off their plate! It will seem like a win/win, but this degenerates into a lose/lose every time as you’ll be crying “no one here thinks of the future”, they’ll be crying “Strategy doesn’t understand I’ve got real numbers to hit here”, and the CEO will be crying “why can’t we all just get along!”

Strategy is delivered by those that either currently make or do the things customers use, or by new areas that will make or do the things customer use in the future. In other words, strategy is ultimately delivered by Sales and Operations areas (whatever you call them),even in you are involved along the way.  Not you on your own.

What Strategy Is There To Do

So if Strategy doesn’t deliver strategy on it’s own, what does it do?

It ensures both the happening of, and the quality of, the conversations necessary to both develop and implement strategy that will see the organisation continue to be both valuable and viable in it’s community.

Don’t get fooled by the simple sentence – the more simple and straightforward the sentence, the more complex and involved the actual execution (‘land someone on the moon and bring them back safely by the end of the decade‘….simple right?). These conversations are why you exist, but getting them happening requires you to do the following:

Take The Mystery Out Of Strategy.

Strategy is nothing fancier than:

  1. Taking the shifting values of a society or community,
  2. Considering what’s possible given the current state of the organisation, then
  3. Deciding what we want to be providing in the future in order to be both valuable and viable.

Values lead to Strategic Decisions which lead to Added-Value Products & Services. Nothing more. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, but nothing more. One way to look at it is to say there’s no such thing as strategic work, there are only decisions about what we want to our operations to be doing and our sales to be selling. Then planning how to do it.  Any ‘strategic work’ is what’s involved in making good decisions.  Which requires….

Provide a Strategic Model

(NOTE: as of 2021, the strategic model I recommend and am a practitioner of is Patterns of Strategy.  It creates both the understanding and the necessary discussions to arrive at a powerful and simple set of manouevres.)

Enterprises that are serious about staying around need a strategic model to make sense of things for everyone. And by everyone, I’m referring to you, your colleagues, the Board, people doing the real work on the frontline….everyone. Give them a framework that both a) explains the purpose of each product/service or business and b) will generate good questions on that exact question.

Which model would I recommend? Well, depends.  If you’re an organisation has both powerful traditional business lines as well as the need to innovate, I’ve found the Zone to Win model by Geoffrey Moore to be both simple and powerful in both generating the right conversations and explaining why every area of the business exists.  You can see a summary here, it involves putting everything in your organisation into four zones:

  • Performance Zone – the businesses or products/services that make your revenue or that you are funded to provide.  Sales and Operations are here.
  • Productivity Zone – the functions that exist to provide the systems and programs that ensure the performance happens efficiently and within the rules.  IT, Finance, HR are classics for in here.
  • Incubation Zone – the breeding ground for when an idea is considered to have potential to one day find it’s way to the Performance Zone.  This zone is to be ring-fenced from Performance and is subject to venture-capital feasibility targets, not existing business targets
  • Transformation Zone – this zone is for those very very few businesses that the organisation has decided to move into the Performance Zone, and requires total organisational support to making this line a fully functional member of the Performance Zone.  It’s important to note that there is no obligation to always have something in this Zone.

(If you’ve been to my org design workshops  you’ll notice the Performance and Productivity Zones correspond to the Added-Value Domain, and the Incubation and Transformation Zones are the work of the Innovation Domain.  That’s part of the reason the model is effective – it reflects the natural way work organises!  Here’s Moore’s model with our Domain terminology alongside)

Use of a simple but powerful model such as this provides a great framework which allows you to…

Raise the Strategic Conversations

You’re there to raise the strategic conversations. Someone needs to be the strategic parrot-on-the-shoulder because everyone else will be focusing on hitting their quarterly results. So do things like make your CEO put the success of the new business or product line first on the monthly executive agenda, not last. Ensure that all executives (even those not involved) have the success of the new business in the top two things they are asked to deliver. When someone asks ‘what’s the ROI on that new business‘, you say ‘we’re not assessing this business on ROI yet, we’re only seeing if it can get to $2 million‘.

This can get awkward. Because at some point you’re going to have to say ‘we need to meet next month to make a decision about whether we continue to invest money and emotional effort in this business line given what we now know‘. This is not going to be popular with those that are involved in that business…but if you’re serious about serving the organisation, it needs to be said. With respect and compassion. But it needs to be said.

And of course, your judgement is needed for those times when the strategy is ‘focus on the core business and get it healthy again’. During these times, you say ‘we can’t spend effort and money on these ideas until next year. I know innovation is very fashionable, but so is staying in business‘. Remember, your job is to ensure the conversations and decisions that lead to valuable and viable happen, and sometimes viable is the thing under threat.

To keep things ticking over, you’re also there to….

Run the Strategic Process

Humans need rhythms, we’re still affected by the seasons despite living inside on our phones, we mark weeks, months, quarters, years and the rest. One of the roles of strategy is to provide a regular rhythm for strategic conversations so they occur. Because if you don’t do this, no one will. That’s your role in the team.

So set up something like this:

  • Regular exec meetings – make sure the future is focused upon as much as the present as described above
  • Quarterly off-site (no more often than this) – two days, one external, one internal.
  • The external day is a discussion of what we’ve learned over the last quarter, plus checking in with any long-term stuff we’re watching.   We’re looking for signs that things have changed, and your job is to make sure these are taken seriously and not automatically ignored under the basis that it will be OK.
  • The internal day is about the capability of your organisation to deliver. Work closely with the top HR person in the organisation to paint the latest iteration of your organisation’s capabilities to deliver both it’s current offerings and potential future offerings. The concept of cognitive capability that we work with in terms of talent pool management is a key input here as it allows you to see the future strength of your ‘list’.
  • Annual review and course set – this is the annual day or days where decisions are made in terms of where we are going to put money and emotional resources. The thing with these things is to not turn them into pontification or theorising sessions. Instead, you use your Zones model as the basis for discussing potential movement in the zones based on what we have learned over the last year. This is the stuff that Boards and Executive teams exist to decide about, and can lead to an actual Board Strategy Day that makes a difference!

There are some additional areas that also make sense to give to the Strategy Role:

Innovation Shepherd

Before something can be made operational (we call this entering the ‘added-value domain’), it needs to prove itself a little.  However….if a new idea that is trying to show that it can make a few sales is subjected to the full ROI requirements of established businesses, along with all the usual corporate overheads….it’s the same as weighing down a speedboat with the tonnage of a cargo ship….hello bottom of the ocean. We need to assess these things with criteria such as Luc Hoebeke recommends like feasibility, desirability, transferability and systemicity (more on this here), which are all about ‘can it fly, do we want it’.

The thing is, if you channel these new speedboats up into an Executive who already take care of a cargo ship,  it never enters the conversations required at the table. Accountability for the potential new businesses needs to be assigned elsewhere at the Exec table, and one such place is the Strategy role. The job here is to ensure the Innovation business is ring-fenced (as in, doesn’t have to fight for resources alongside the behemoths), is subject to feasibility standards and not existing business standards, and that it enters the conversation. And of course the job is also to get involved and support those people fighting to make the thing fly.

Deal Maker

The strategy role might also be given the business development function. The key here is to distinguish clearly from market and product development and do not profess to make decisions in their space or become their judge and juror. Business development is about getting strategy going when there is the ability to do so via acquisition or similar activity. Small businesses may be acquired to place into the Innovation Zone to see what can be learned, or acquisition may be a method applied to a business deemed ready for the Transformation Zone.  With acquisition being the quick way to scale, this can be a way to move rapidly into an established business line.

For both the Innovation Shepherd and the Deal Maker roles, the key is that the accountability for the new business is temporary – two year’s max.  After this, the ideas are moved on either through shut down, selling off, or perhaps are now successful players in the Performance Zone, or add-ons to existing major lines in the Performance Zone. If they are still under the Strategy role in a third year, it means a decision is being avoided. This isn’t good strategy.  Luckily you’re there to generate that conversation right?

Information Provider

The other extra task the Strategy role might take on is to feed in constant information on what’s changing in the wider world in which the enterprise exists. The thinking here is that people who spend their time wondering how to make motorbikes go faster might miss a values change away from solo transport altogether.  The Strategy role can scan the environment for fundamental changes not so much in the market (that’s what your market and product teams do), but for changes in the underlying values of society.

What does this look like? Well, what it doesn’t look like is always being the person with the latest fidget-spinner. That’s the express train to credibility loss. Instead, it looks like:

  • there’s a talk on next week at 3pm, come along with me, I think you’ll find it interesting‘. It looks like:
  • hey all, I noticed a common thread between a few conversations over the last month, so I’ve done some research and I’d like to spend 30 minutes at the next meeting going over some ideas‘. It looks like
  • I noticed this on the news websites I read, let’s have a chat about it as if it’s really going to happen just to see what we learn‘. And of course,
  • a quarterly digest of changes noticed that gets presented at the quarterly strategic off-site that you’re now running.

The point of all of this is not to take the job of the existing market and product development team. It’s to provide information beyond the current fields, that may, just occasionally, cause a moment of insight to occur. Which leads to a suggestion to try a small innovative business or new product line. Which we put into the Incubation Zone and ring-fence so we can talk about it next year at the Planning Day if it sprouts.


So there we have the Strategy role. Or at least a starting point you can use to find your own. The key point is to not take sole accountability for execution of strategy, but do ensure conversations and decisions on strategy are made. You do this by:

  • Taking the mystery out of strategy
  • Providing a strategic model
  • Raising the strategic conversation
  • Run the strategic process

and in some strategy roles you may also be

  • Innovation shepherd
  • Deal maker
  • Information provider

Do this well, and you’re playing a key role in the long-term value and viability of your enterprise.

Good luck!


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