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10 tips to create an awesome strategy that works

Is your company ready to receive the workforce of 2025? And do you realize what effects this new world of work can have on your company? While the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation, many business leaders have been busy dealing with its aftermath, and there has been little time for strategic initiatives.

Now that your people are able to work remotely and leadership teams have dealt with the short term consequences, it’s time to take a look at your long term strategy: what has changed for your business? What is the outlook, and what does that mean for your future workforce?

And although it sounds like one more thing to do, it’s imperative that you make time to think about future – strategic plans take time to come together, they require input from different areas and a careful approach. In other words, think in months instead of weeks. And because of the major changes the pandemic caused, it is imperative that you and your leadership team spend time thinking through your strategy: is it still valid? What has changed? If you don’t, then what are you working towards? And more importantly, what do your employees think their goals are?

It’s impossible to predict the future

When you run a business, you focus on the current quarter and the year and this is a great way to deliver results. You might even have a 3-year plan. However, the risk is that this approach implicitly assumes that the future is an evolved version of the present. And looking back, we know that isn’t true.

We also know that people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. Yet, to ensure that our business continues to thrive five or more years from now, it’s up to us as business leaders to have a vision and define a long-term strategy, while fully realizing that external circumstances might force our business to take a different direction in future.

I’ve been running strategy initiatives for many years, the last of which was NGA HR’s HR2025 program. Back in 2018, we sat down as leadership team to imagine what the company would look like in 2025, what services we would offer and what people we would employ. Over the course of several months, we talked to experts, invited employees to participate and even held a global survey to solicit external opinions.

And while you might not want to take it that far, several elements in our approach might be useful for you – we didn’t hire outside consultants to run workshops or deliver reports. Instead we took a number of pragmatic steps that gave us the answers we needed. This article revisits the approach we took, and shares some lessons learned along the way. I hope you find it useful!

Why did we embark on a 2025 strategy initiative?

A long-term program allows you to make well-informed, strategic choices about:

  • The market in which you operate, global developments and trends and how they influence your market leadership
  • What your company needs to do to thrive and meet the expectations of clients, employees and owners in the future

While keeping in mind that strategy is about winning by:

  • Uniquely positioning your company in your industry
  • Creating sustainable advantage
  • Delivering superior value versus the competition

You might think that a strategy should be focused on solving your clients’ future needs, but this is too narrow a view. A client-base you serve today might not exist anymore or doesn’t need your services. Automation could replace you or businesses decide it’s better to take a service in-house. You might have underutilized assets, that allow you to serve different clients in future. Focusing your strategy on current clients alone would mean you miss opportunities.

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Why 2025?

In 2018, we looked at the tornado of new technologies that were impacting the HR and payroll space. It was obvious that we didn’t have the bandwidth to absorb them all, and our clients didn’t either. We had to make choices – for our own business and for our clients, and more importantly, we had to make the right choices. At the same time, we realized that the world (of work) changes so fast that it is difficult to know with absolute certainty which technologies will provide opportunities and which can be ignored.

This meant we had to take an approach that would allow us to work towards a common goal and allow for course correction in future. We chose 2025 as our focus. It was far enough away that there would be a definite change, but not so far that we would venture into unknown territory. Our questions then were; what will the world look like in 2025? How will people work and get paid? Who will buy from us, and what are the services and technologies those clients need by then?

The objective of our strategic approach was to build a framework that allowed us to make the right (investment) decisions today, but with agility to support the services we thought we would need to provide in 2025, knowing that there is no way of knowing exactly what we need. Approaching strategy with a mid-term time frame means you can think broadly and be creative.

strategy: strategic planning

A strategy is a work in progress: you’re never done

Our strategy program consisted of various meetings and workshops, with internal and external people and took us about 6 months. Internally, we regularly reviewed the 5 assumptions we defined to govern our strategy, to ensure that we continued to consider these our guiding principles. We adjusted two of them as a result of changes in the external environment.

We ran various activities as a follow up, one of them being the HR2025 website, where we shared thought leadership articles and podcasts on the future of work. In that way, despite all the daily pressures, we regularly devoted some time to long term thinking. It also exposed us to external opinions, that allowed us to evaluate if we were still on the right trajectory.

There are many official approaches that help you with strategy definition, as well as tools like SWOT, PEST etc. We used several of them during our program, and because they are so well known, I did not include them in this article. Also, as leaders we know far more about our business and industry than we think, and we wanted our teams to take a different approach, expand our hive thinking and not rely on the usual.

The 10 tips below provide insight in what made our program work well. There is no one-size-fits-all, but feel free to use them as a guide to design a strategy program that harnesses the strengths and creativity of your people and that works for the ongoing growth of your business!

1. Carefully select the main drivers

There are dozens of drivers that influence the future of your business, and you can’t take them all in consideration. The trick is to use the ones that allow you to examine your business from various angles.

We picked the 12 topics below, and even though we narrowed it down, it was still a broad list. However, these drivers allowed us to focus the conversation on what is important for our business and the market in which we operate.

From a global perspective this meant we included demographics, to understand population sizes and growth, and labor force expectations. Since our focus is HR & Payroll, we also included topics like Employee Experience and Changing Workforce, themes we know are top of mind for our clients and will continue to dominate our market space. We evaluated our ecosystem, with special focus on potential future competitors outside of our market space, like network platforms.

GlobalBusinessHR & Payroll market
EconomicsBusiness (client) landscapeEmployee experience
Political/RegulatoryEcosystem (partners, competition)Changing Workforce
DemographicsTechnologyAgility and Process
Geographic focusFinancialPrivacy and Security

For each of these topics, we defined questions that were important to discuss. As an example, while examining the business landscape, we asked ourselves: “We focus on solving HR and payroll complexities for domestic and international workforces. How will the business landscape evolve over the next years? What will companies look like in 2025? Do we expect the number of multi-country businesses to increase?”

2. Define a point on the horizon

When you embark on defining a strategy and your company works with a 3-year business plan, I’d recommend that you set a time that’s twice that. When we started in 2018, 2025 was 7 years away. That’s long enough to be unsure about everything. (and yes, we could have chosen 2024, but 2025 just sounded better).

When you start in 2020, depending on how volatile your industry is, 2025 might be too close or too far. The important thing is to choose a point that leaves you with enough uncertainty to think big. Because when you think big, amazing things start to happen.

3. Step out of your comfort zone

When you are consumed by the daily business, as we all are, it’s not easy to leave that behind and focus on strategy. On the days we held our workshops, we used simple activities to get out of our current mindset, step into the future and get our imagination flowing.

We used the Board of Innovation’s Futurescan tool. It’s an excellent tool, that describes predictions and future-inspired trends 50 to 100 years from today and will get your creative juices flowing.

Another useful exercise is asking “What if” questions: What if no one works for a company anymore? What if companies don’t exist anymore? You might feel these questions are far-fetched but go with the flow and answer them anyway. The purpose is not to answer them correctly, but to do some creative thinking and have a conversation. You will discover that once you start talking through the answers with each other, some brilliant ideas will pop up.

4. Cast a wide net

I’m sure you know a lot about the market in which you operate. But what about markets that are adjacent to yours? Some of the largest companies in the world weren’t before what they are now: Samsung originally sold dried fish and groceries and is an electronics giant today. Philips sold light bulbs and became a leader in healthcare technology. What kind of capabilities do you have that could be valuable in a different market? And what kind of capabilities do others have, companies that today don’t operate in your market but could tomorrow? And don’t overlook startups: anyone with a good idea and a credit card can buy space on a hyperscaler and start a global business.

Because business and technology change so fast, we needed to know a lot more about potential disruptors in our industry and so we invited external speakers from outside our industry to challenge our thinking. We heard from an economist, a technologist, a futurist, analysts & advisors, and business leaders. It’s amazing how many people are willing to help you if you just ask. It’s so easy using LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media. And if you find that difficult, there is a lot of free information available online that can be useful too: watch TEDtalks, or sign up for online seminars, listen to podcasts and read articles.

5. Use the wisdom of the crowds

Our strategy initiative was run by a small team, but we made a big effort to involve as many people as possible. After we identified key strategic issues, we shared our initial thinking on the internal Yammer site and solicited feedback from employees. Ever since we started using Yammer, we encouraged our colleagues to respond to posts, and this culture allowed us to tap into the collective knowledge of everyone in the company who wanted to participate. Based on the input, we revised our initial ideas and that made our assumptions stronger.

We pulled in customer insights, so we understood where our clients are headed, and we collected industry and market data. We held innovation workshops and Design Thinking sessions with clients, spoke at conferences, and incorporated what we learned into our strategy design.

Because we had involved so many people, once we were ready to share our 2025 strategy internally, it wasn’t a surprise. It was the expected outcome of a program everyone knew we were working on and could contribute to. We used our annual leadership conference to tell the story and to share our five strategic assumptions. In the following week, we made the video available to everyone in the company.

That wasn’t the end of our program, because strategy is never finished: we started the HR2025 website, and invited people to respond to our global survey on work and pay in 2025. We continued to solicit external opinions through blogs and podcasts. It kept our strategy effort alive and was a great way to continuously adjust and improve it.

6. Nothing is off limits

When we held our first strategy meetings, we agreed on one thing: everything is up for debate. “We are always successful this way” is not a valid argument. Since no one can be sure about the future, we were working with hypotheses and in principle, they are all good. And if you have an existing vision statement, you must put it aside to foster an open conversation.

Even when you embrace the mindset of strategic thinking, there are times that you get into conversations about limitations: not possible, not enough time, not enough money, not likely enough. To ensure that we didn’t limit ourselves early on by focusing on such obstacles, we had a ‘parking place”: a piece of paper on the wall on which we wrote every obstacle we encountered. That way, we didn’t ignore them, but they also didn’t dominate the conversation: we could move on and come back to them later.

7. If you want to participate, you can’t facilitate

When you lead a strategy project like this, you spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the future and you become invested. And when you start to organize the workshops, it’s easy to see yourself as the facilitator of those sessions. But if you want to participate in these workshops, and share what you’ve heard, you can’t facilitate them.

An important job of the facilitator is to establish ground rules to ensure that the group works well together, and everyone is heard. Although the facilitator may have extensive knowledge on the topic, the goal of facilitation is to help the group move forward, not to convey knowledge.

Which means you must decide: do you want to participate in the workshops, or do you want to facilitate them?

8. Take your time

It takes time to develop a proper strategy. When we finally came together for the onsite workshop, we had been challenged by external thinkers for a couple of months, read articles and listened to clients. We all came to the workshop prepared and armed with information that we didn’t have six months before. Our strategy workshop came halfway through the journey, not at the start.

Also, the strategy workshop was not the final step. The real work started after we spent those days together. We drafted the assumptions, we reviewed them several times, solicited external and internal feedback and then finalized them.

Design your strategy project like any other program: plan it carefully. You need to set aside enough time to discuss and debate, go home, think and reiterate. In this case, homework is good! Don’t underestimate how important time is to rethink and refine your strategy. Don’t rush towards a deadline!

9. Be prepared to change course

We set our destination on the horizon seven years from when we started. A lot can happen in seven years (or in a few months as the pandemic reminded us), and it gives you ample time to regroup and reassess. That’s also why we defined five strategic assumptions: they were clear enough to guide our decision-making process, but they are not set in stone. When you use ‘assumptions’, everyone understands there is a level of uncertainty. We defined them based on what we knew then. At the same time, it’s clear that when the need arises, e.g. the environment changes, we can change our assumptions.

We constantly monitored our strategy and our assumptions, adjusting when necessary to keep driving us towards our vision. In this way, we weren’t so focused on a specific strategy or tactic that we didn’t realize when it was time to change.

10. Have fun

Working on the strategy for your company is a serious task. It’s also a fun thing to do, especially when you involve other people. From an internal perspective, we made interesting connections with colleagues and discovered great thinkers!

During the external interviews, we were able to speak to people who had amazing stories to tell. We met with startups and learned how they look at the world: there are so many amazing talented people out there, that are willing to share their knowledge. It made me see the Future of Work in a completely different light.

When you create a strategy project, embrace it as a fun way to challenge yourself – and if you have a question, please reach out. I would be happy to return the favor and share what I learned with you.

On the Future of Work and HR