Strategy formulation is complex, requiring the integration of multiple perspectives and approaches. Over the past two articles, we have been sharing the Grounded EthnoDesign (GED) method, a unique approach that we have developed for research organisations that aligns institutional ambitions with tangible, strategic solutions.
We have explored the initial stages of the GED process, focusing on the identification and framing of problems. Here, we showed how GED starts by understanding the organisation's goals and ambitions, and then identifies the gaps between these ambitions and the current outcomes. By involving both internal and external stakeholders, this problem-framing stage provides a comprehensive set of challenges that need to be addressed.
Part two explored how we transform problems into "How Might We" questions, ideating solutions, and developing a Theory of Change (ToC). Through this stage, potential solutions are brainstormed, a roadmap for change is created, and beliefs and assumptions are tested to ensure that solutions are practical and robust.
In this third and final article of the series, we will share how we use GED to implement strategy, manage performance, track progress, and evaluate success. As always, the focus is on providing actionable insights that practitioners inside research organisations can adopt in their strategic decision-making.
From Strategy to Action: A Recap
As we've already seen, GED embraces an iterative process to derive strategy. The process is built upon an exploration of "How Might We" questions that serve as a launchpad for brainstorming potential solutions. Each preferred solution is mapped out into a ToC, creating a blueprint that visualises the transition from the current state to the desired state.
In the ToC, assumptions underpinning each solution are rigorously examined, and potential barriers to change are identified. This enables us to ensure the practicality of solutions while allowing us to also understand potential challenges. Moreover, the ToC draws valuable input from external stakeholders, whose perspectives can challenge our assumptions and provide additional dimensions to our understanding.
The core of this iterative process lies in the constant refinement of each step, from problem framing and question formulation to ideation and ToC development. This process is not linear but is, instead, a dynamic cycle that acknowledges the complexity and fluidity of real-world challenges. As we iterate, the strategy sharpens, bringing us closer to an agreement on the most effective ways to address the organisation's most pressing problems. It's our version of the classic design-thinking 'diverge-converge' diamond.
It's important to emphasise, though, that the outcome of this process – an agreed strategy – is not a document or a plan. It's a well-forged roadmap that incorporates diverse perspectives, a thorough understanding of the problems, creative solutions, and a realistic idea of how change will occur. This serves as our compass for action, guiding us as we navigate the complexities of implementation and evaluation, which will be our focus in this article.
First, it's important to say that strategy implementation is a bit of a misnomer. For us – and the reasons GED works the way it does – this is because implementation is not decoupled from 'strategy', but they are one and the same things. The iterative GED process never stops until the desired outcomes have been achieved or abandoned and replaced (and then achieved). GED provides a framework for the ongoing strategy refinement over time, as decisions are made, lessons learned, and new decisions are made that reflect those lessons.
Following the formation of an initial preferred strategy, though, the GED process shifts from thought to action — taking the strategic roadmap and turning it into reality. Key to this phase is the use of logic models to operationalise the strategy. These serve as practical tools for interpreting the strategy into actionable steps that can be sequenced and resourced.
Program logic models delineate the strategy's pathway, from inputs to activities, to outcomes, mapping out each step of the strategy and its expected results. They provide an easy-to-understand graphical representation that breaks down the strategy into activities. By illustrating the interdependencies and flow of actions, they aid in identifying potential bottlenecks and opportunities for synergies.
Moreover, they facilitate alignment of resources. By detailing each activity, we can map out what resources — be they financial, human, or material — are required at each stage. This facilitates strategic resource allocation, ensuring that the necessary inputs are available and reducing the risk of delays or failures.
The use of program logic models also assists in establishing a provisional timeline for delivery. By visualising the sequence of activities and understanding their dependencies, we can develop a timeline that respects the complexities and interrelations of each task.
Implementing strategy is a complex undertaking that requires careful consideration of the chain of cause and effect relations that will lead to a desired change occurring in the world. Program logic models serve as a critical tool in this process, aiding in translating the strategic ambitions into logical representations of beliefs. Through these models, GED ensures that strategy implementation is not a stab in the dark but a logical series of actions towards a desired future state.
Managing Short-Term Performance: The Role of OKRs
There are different ways that organisataions think about tracking their performance, but our experience has demonstrated that we need to employ different approaches across the short, medium and long-term tracking of a strategy.
For the short-medium term, we employ a version of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a tool for managing performance. OKRs provide a dynamic goal-setting framework that keeps teams focused, engaged, and aligned with the outcomes.
As the name suggests, OKRs are comprised of two parts: Objectives, aspirational goals, and Key Results, which are quantifiable measures used to track the achievement of these objectives. In the context of GED, Objectives might align with components of strategic goals, while Key Results could relate to the tangible outcomes outlined in the program logic models.
The strength of OKRs lies in their ability to create alignment and engagement around measurable goals. By translating organisational ambitions into a set of defined and measurable key results, OKRs help every team member understand their role in achieving the goals. This allows for individual and team goals to be inextricably linked with the organisation's strategy, promoting a shared sense of purpose.
OKRs also foster a focused and collaborative environment. They help teams prioritise their efforts on the activities that directly contribute to the strategic goals and encourage cross-functional collaboration, as many objectives require input from different teams.
Tracking Medium-Term Progress: The Importance of Milestones
For tracking medium-term progress we tend to talk about the concept of milestones. These are crucial markers signifying progress made toward achieving the long-term objectives of the strategy.
Milestones are usually tangible and observable events or outcomes that signal a substantial completion of an important phase or component of the strategy. They serve as checkpoints in the strategic journey, enabling an organisation to measure progress against the overall strategy. In the context of GED, milestones are also linked to key outcomes outlined in the program logic model and align closely with Objectives from OKRs.
The are multiple reasons to use milestones. First, they provide immediate feedback on the effectiveness of actions, allowing teams to recognise if the strategy is unfolding as anticipated. This helps to detect deviations early on, making adjustments to keep the strategy on track.
Secondly, milestones act as a communication tool, providing clear and tangible evidence of progress to all stakeholders, including board members, staff, and funders. By regularly communicating these achievements, organisations can maintain stakeholder engagement and confidence in the strategy.
Evaluating Long-Term Success: KPIs
The long-term success of our strategies is evaluated through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These provide objective measures of the effectiveness of the strategy over the long term, generally aligning with an ultimate aspiration.
KPIs represent a quantitative manifestation of the organisation's strategic aspiration. They can encompass a range of areas, from financial performance to employee engagement and sustainability. Irrespective, the use of KPIs is crucial for several reasons. First, they offer clear benchmarks against which an organisation can gauge its success.
Second, KPIs serve as valuable learning tools. By analysing performance data represented by KPIs, organisations can glean insights into what is working well and where adjustments may be needed. This feedback loop enables continuous learning and improvement, enhancing the overall effectiveness of the strategic process. Like OKRs and milestones, the insights derived from KPI analysis inform the ongoing refinement of strategy, ensuring it remains responsive to changing needs and context.
Ongoing Management and Evaluation
One of the hallmarks of GED is that it is iterative and adaptive, which becomes especially significant when it comes to managing and evaluating decisions. Unlike linear models of strategy formulation, GED acknowledges the inherent uncertainty and complexity of organisational contexts. It doesn't seek to eliminate these elements but rather embraces them, allowing for ongoing adaptation and evolution of the strategy.
We work with our clients to develop processes and systems for the continual cycle of management and evaluation of strategy. The strategy is not set in stone; it is regularly revisited and reassessed in light of emerging data, changes in the external environment, and feedback from internal and external stakeholders. This allows the strategy to stay relevant and effective even as circumstances evolve.
An analogy we often use is taking a road trip - we have adestination in mind (KPI), we have check points along the way like towns or site-seeing opportunities that tell us we are heading in the right diretcion (milestones), and we need to keep our eye on the fuel gauge, speedometer and other key measures as we drive (OKRs). Without each component in place, we will miss vital information that can help us correct our course if we are lost, or refill the car with fuel if we are running empty.
The practice of updating beliefs plays a crucial role in this process. As new information emerges and contexts shift, the assumptions that underpin the strategy must be questioned and, where necessary, adjusted. This doesn't just involve reassessing the 'facts' on the ground, but also interrogating the underlying beliefs and assumptions that influence decision-making within the organisation. This kind of introspection helps ensure that the strategy remains grounded in the current reality and not locked in past assumptions.
GED emphasises flexibility and adaptability, facilitating a living strategy that can evolve with the organisation's needs and context. This iterative process ensures that strategic decisions are continually made, evaluated and optimised.
As we wrap up our exploration of Research Strategies Australia's Grounded EthnoDesign approach, it is worth reflecting that its strength lies not just in its ability to develop innovative and integrated strategies but also extends to guide their implementation and evaluation. We can't underplay the importance of transitioning from thought to action, leveraging tools such as program logic models, OKRs, milestones, and KPIs to translate ambitious goals into tangible outcomes.
Beginning with the agreed (starting) strategy, we utilise program logic models, breaking down strategy into actionable steps. OKRs help manage short-term performance, aligning the organisation's ambitions with individual and team goals. To ensure momentum and provide feedback, milestones are used to mark medium-term progress. And, KPIs, the hard metrics of success, enable a long-term evaluation of the strategy's effectiveness.
The most significant thing about GED is its inherent flexibility. The approach is designed to be iterative and adaptive, responding dynamically to shifts in the internal and external environment. It emphasises continual learning and updating beliefs and strategies, ensuring their ongoing relevance and effectiveness. GED is a robust, resilient, and responsive framework for tackling complex organisational challenges.