Only a few short years ago, strategic themes were very much the focus within the business environment. Organisations of all kinds discussed themes and sought to align their operational efforts around them.

But today, the emphasis has moved on to strategic priorities. Why is the change necessary when the two things don’t actually sound that different? Is this simply a case of changing jargon for change’s sake? Let’s start by pinning down our terms.

Defining themes and priorities

In brief:

– A theme allows us to break down the business’s vision and purpose into workable chunks.
– A priority, allows us to do the same thing, but it adds the necessary importance and urgency that ensures it is actioned.

So, themes and priorities are largely similar – but a priority brings about a sense of urgency. This is crucial because we need to be able to prioritise the outcomes of our strategic planning rather than simply categorise them.

Times have changed

Today we talk about strategic priorities more than strategic themes. Why? Because we know that there needs to be time-bound, concerted, business-wide action behind them in order to ensure they are achieved.

Without that sense of urgency – or the SMART measures that we tend to use – a theme can simply roll onwards without a natural end-point – something that is particularly dangerous when we have a business strategy and plan to deliver within a fixed time-frame. (Not to mention a highly-competitive world where other organisations are keen to grab your market share – and where stakeholders demand healthy returns!)

Let’s take a closer look.

A business strategy can generally be broken down into two to three key strategic themes – or ‘pillars of excellence’ which describe the main areas a company needs to focus on to fulfil its vision and mission. Themes tend to be broad in nature – cross-functional and cross-organisational. An example might be ‘best-in-class customer service’, or ‘operational efficiency’. You can see here that strategic themes are used to provide a framework to achieve strategic-level results; those that really matter.

Their importance is undeniable – but as a broad theme, they lack that sense of urgency that the organisation needs to drive its efforts forwards and to secure competitive advantage through timely action.

The danger is that the business themes become permanent, and ultimately become overtaken by more immediate, pressing concerns. Concerns which may not actually take the organisation in its intended strategic direction.

It may only be a change in language, but by talking about strategic priorities, we instil that necessary sense of urgency. We prioritise the outcomes of our strategic planning – rather than simply categorise them.

Setting strategic priorities

So we know now that we need to focus on setting strategic priorities and focusing our resources and efforts towards delivering those priorities in order to achieve the business strategy itself.

How can we do this? The nature of ‘priority’ encourages us to act fast… but setting these strategic priorities actually takes time.

At Intrafocus, we recommend to businesses that they focus on three areas and use them to create an information wall. Usually, we do this with the surprisingly low-tech approach of using post-it notes to brainstorm on a wall! Get those notes up and move them around as necessary to create your three areas that describe:

a) The current situation – which usually requires breaking down the organisation’s purpose and vision to find strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOTs). Ask what you’re succeeding at, and where you are falling short. Where could you change the game with the quality of your business delivery – and what is preventing you from being the best possible business that you could conceivably be?

b) The future perspective – use your vision and purpose to forecast your business’s future. This can be challenging but you can use various imagining techniques to help. For example, we often ask our clients to mentally place themselves five years into the future, and look back at today – asking in which ways the business has been particularly successful. This simple exercises can be surprisingly powerful!

c) Your value proposition – this is key for your strategic priorities, and involves collating the most pressing reasons by your customers – and target audience – should be interested in your business offer. Again, grab those post-it notes and get your team to brainstorm their ideas. Are you swift, ethical, premium, reliable or innovative, for example?

Define your priorities

Once you have defined these states – current position, future state and value proposition – you can define your business’s strategic priorities and create three. Take your post-its and group them into areas which are thematically similar – such as customers, skills, operations, products etc. Then, write three statements of priority, using the words that you already have gathered in the earlier exercises.

Why three? Too many priorities and it becomes difficult for people to focus. Set three, and the law of diminishing returns suggest that you should succeed at least two or three. But set four or more and you might struggle to achieve one or two.

Find out more

Intrafocus works with businesses and organisations across all industries to help with their strategic journey. Whether you are new to the strategic process or well-versed in strategic development, our experienced consultants can add measurable value at every step of the way. We are also able to work remotely during this socially-distance period! Please contact us in the first instance for an informal chat about your needs, and how we might help you.