Anna Shipman : JFDI

Strategic technology leader. CTO at Kooth, a company specialising in digital mental health. Previously Technical Director at the Financial Times, Technical Architect at the Government Digital Service.

I speak at conferences and write about strategy and tech leadership on my blog, JFDI.

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Strategy for Directors: Tying it together

10 July 2024

I did an excellent course on Strategy for Directors. On Monday, I shared some models we learned about and in this post I pull those together.

Whether you are in leadership or not, you can use this process and the models to help your strategic thinking. If you prefer to watch rather than read, I covered a lot of this in my talk Analysing, Deciding, Doing: How to develop and execute an effective strategy.

Analyse, Decide, Implement

The course splits strategy work into three stages.

  1. Strategic analysis: Make a diagnosis of your current situation (external and internal)
  2. Strategic choice: make a decision about what you want to do
  3. Implement

Strategy is often set by the person with the loudest voice. One of the aims of this course was to teach techniques and models to allow robust discussion, surface ideas and allow everyone to be heard.

With all the models, the value comes mainly in the discussion and the shared understanding that brings, rather than the output itself.

Can you hear the baby cry?

A running theme was, can we hear the challenge? There is a lot of noise, but can you recognise the one challenge that you need to address, and then work out what you need to do to address it?

The analogy the course instructor used was “can you hear the baby cry?” When a baby cries, it cuts through other noises, and you know you need to do something: pick it up, feed it, change it, etc. What, in the noise of your situation, external factors, challenges and opportunities, is the one key noise that you need to act on?

Analysis: what is the strategic context?

The purpose of the analysis is to understand where you are, what the challenges are and what the opportunities are.

Part of the analysis phase is about challenging groupthink. Sometimes knowledge or understanding can be outdated, and sometimes the board or leadership are predisposed to see what they want or expect to see. The main outcome you are looking for from the strategic analysis is a common understanding.

Don’t start with a SWOT analysis

Many of us are familiar with a SWOT analysis: identifying the organisation’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It is often a starting point for defining strategy.

One interesting thing this course recommended was doing the SWOT analysis last, after other models, because it is quite a blunt instrument; it can be quite simplistic. They recommend instead using SWOT to pull together the outputs from the other analyses.

Analyse the external and internal environment

Firstly, look at the macro-external market, i.e. the world. For this, use PESTLE. You can also do scenario testing for analysing a VUCA situation, which is imagining some changes in the external world that could affect your business, and for any that would have a large impact, plan what you could do.

Then, look at the micro-external environment: customers, competitors, suppliers etc. For this, use S-curves, market segmentation, generic strategies, and Five forces.

Then, look at the internal environment: how your organisation currently is. For this, use capabilities, core competencies, threshold/distinctive capabilities (VRIN), and value chain analysis.

Bring it all together: portfolio analysis and SWOT!

Now you’ve analysed the external world and your organisation, bring it all together for an integrated picture. Firstly, you can do a portfolio analysis, and then use SWOT to bring together all the other outputs.

SWOT is a nice way to share the outputs of this work, but be aware that people you share only the SWOT with will not have all the context of the work you did to get to that, so it is not always a very effective communication tool.

Now you have the diagnosis, what’s the prognosis?

The situation analysis is often relatively straightforward. What it means for your organisation is the more challenging conversation.

The prognosis is what will happen to the market if the organisation does nothing. If the prognosis suggests a discrepancy between the anticipated market conditions and the forecast for the business, there will be a strategic gap.

Articulating the main challenge can be difficult. It has to be seen as a challenge by all of your key stakeholders. One way to get into the mindset is taking a step back and first asking the question of other organisations. For example, what is the main challenge facing your national rail provider? Your country’s health service? Coca-Cola?

Internal communication drives change

You now need to make the call to action so that everyone can hear it. Everyone needs to be able to hear the baby cry.

You need to provide context, because other stakeholders weren’t present during your analysis. You need to make it clear why change is vital: use story, example and metaphor; be clear. Show what value your call to action provides, and stress the consequences of doing nothing.

What are you are trying to do here is communicate a compelling call to action that ensures that all stakeholders who will be involved in implementing the strategy understand why change needs to happen. You want to get everyone keen to move to the next stage and thinking about options for the business.

Generating strategic options

You’ve now completed your analysis and you know what the central challenge is for your organisation. So what are you going to do?

Models to use to come up with options include Three horizons, Ansoff matrix and Blue Ocean approaches. It is also worth looking at the disruptive innovation model now in case disrupting your own industry is an option.

Evaluation and making a strategic choice

You now have your analysis and your options. So what do you do?

Whatever you choose is informed by all this work. It needs to be explicit, forward thinking, and simple. Some models to help choose are SAFe and weighting and scoring.

They also spent some time on the course talking about decision-making biases, including cognitive bias (Wikipedia has a good list), unconscious bias and group decision-making vulnerabilities including social loafing (people are prone to work less hard when in a group than when working alone), evaluation apprehension (nervousness about what others might think) and the Einstellung affect (thinking a method that has worked in the past will work again now, even if more effective methods exist).

Apart from all this, a potential obstacle to good decision-making is not being clear about what decision is to be made and who is to make it.

It is a good idea to set up or strengthen your strategic decision-making processes and put in place corrective measures to lessen the impact of some of these biases and vulnerabilities that hinder good decision-making.

Doubt hinders strategy: this is where leadership comes in

Some will resist the strategy. It calls for change, so some will be disadvantaged, and some who may be advantaged cannot be certain that will be the case. So this is where strong leadership comes into play, through will, focus, communication, repeating why the status quo is no longer acceptable and reminding everyone of the vision for the future.

Ask those who say no what it would take for them to come along on the journey.

You need to win “hearts and minds”. Commitment is easier to gain when the organisation is in jeopardy. It’s much harder to secure commitment when the status quo is acceptable or even desirable. This is why leadership is required, to ensure stakeholders can hear the baby cry.

You must now implement the strategy

“Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left?”

Many people say “one”. But the answer is “five”. There is a big gap between deciding to jump and doing it.

Often boards and leadership teams will have intentions rather than commitments. They announce they are going to jump off the log, but things get in the way of the actual leaping. Good ideas can be lost through lack of implementation.

As well as commitment, you need to ensure the organisation can execute. Neilson, Martin and Powers suggest there are four fundamental building blocks that influence effective strategy execution: decision rights, information flows, aligning motivators and structure; and furthermore found that changes to the first two are twice as effective as changes to the second two. Share context, ensure information flow in both directions, don’t undermine decisions and ensure everyone, especially people on the ground, have the data and information they need to understand the impact of their decisions.

Using the implementation web

The last model we learned about that can support your execution is the implementation web. This allows you to create a spider diagram of where you are across the 8 key areas of implementation and where you therefore need to put more focus.

There is a lot to cover in the implementation web but some of the key areas follow.

It’s all about communication

If you’ve heard me speak about strategy you will have heard me say that it’s all about communication. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if no-one knows about it, it’s worth nothing: people won’t know how to act.

It is very hard to do sufficient or varied enough communication. Some of the suggestions from the course:

Implementation requires effective alignment across the organisation. Everyone needs to understand what the strategy means for them.

Measurement to help drive strategy

Measurement can help drive strategy both by communicating intent and as a way to show progress. You can have both lagging and leading indicators. Lagging indicators are the consequences of earlier decisions, for example financial results. Leading indicators are outcomes or metrics that will show you are on the right path early enough to adjust your course.

Balanced scorecards are one way to address this, by including internal processes, customers and learning as well as financial results. Dashboards are another way to show leading indicators, real time data, and/or RAG statuses (Red, Amber, Green, also known as traffic light reporting) to indicate how projects are progressing towards their goals.

They also noted that you need to think about performance and measurement on different horizons differently, and that should impact how you allocate resources to that work.

Culture is the hardest part to change

Culture is the hardest to change: so the more closely the implementation plan fits with the prevailing culture, the more likely it is to succeed.

It’s perfectly legitimate for the implementation of a strategy to seek to change the prevailing culture, but it’s important to be aware that this will be very challenging.

Review could be the most important part of the implementation web

It’s often easier to change direction when you’re already in motion rather than getting stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’, and as long as you incorporate review into your strategic process, you can flex. However, review is the one that leaders do least often. The board and leadership tend to be enthusiastic about driving the organisation forward, meaning often not enough attention is paid to tracking progress against the plan.

Because competent implementation includes review, it’s actually less important to have a perfect strategy than it is to have a good implementation, because a good implementation will include reviewing and adjusting the strategy. As you progress, you will gain more data, more strategic insight and a better understanding of your choices.

It’s important to move fast, so it’s better to move into implementation as soon as you have a “good enough” strategy. Implementation is about achieving goals and generating value, but it is also about learning, and the ultimate competitive advantage might be the ability to learn more quickly than your competitors.

There is no “right” strategy

The implementation web can be used as a tool to help you work out if you are putting the right inputs into your strategy. Ultimately, there is no “right” strategy; outcomes are impacted by many factors some of which are out of your control, so what you can do is make sure the process of strategy works in your organisation and you are giving the right inputs.

How to use this

I enjoyed this course, learned a lot and would highly recommend it. However, at the end, the question I was left with was how to put all this information together to work on strategy. Answering that question is what led to me creating my talk, Analysing, Deciding, Doing: How to develop and execute an effective strategy, and these two blog posts.

You do not need to use all of the models in order, but you can. You don’t need to be in leadership to do this strategic thinking. I hope these two blog posts have given you some thoughts about what your next steps in strategy could be.

Strategy for Directors: Models

08 July 2024

Following on from the great IoD course on finance, I did their Strategy for Directors course. I have split my notes into two parts. In this post, I will go through some models, with explanations. Then, in part 2, on Wednesday, I will tie it together.

If you prefer to watch rather than read, I covered a lot of this in my talk Analysing, Deciding, Doing: How to develop and execute an effective strategy.

The value of the models is in the discussion

For all of these models, the value is in bringing the issues into the open and discussing them, as much as the end result. People are often making unconscious assumptions about the future, or the current situation, and these models help surface them.


This is the first of the models for diagnosing your situation. PESTLE helps identify external influences.

Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental.

For each area, come up with factors that might affect your company or project. Score them for certainty and impact.

Something that is certain to happen and will have a high impact (for example, GDPR) is something you need to respond to or capitalise on. Something that might not happen, or might have a relatively low impact, you will respond to in a different way, for example do some experimentation, or decide to just watch and wait.

As well as thinking about the factors, think about the trends in that factor. Not much changes over a couple of years but a lot changes over a decade.


VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

It describes situations that defy predictability. If you are operating in a VUCA environment, you need to be able to flex your strategy.

Market lifecycles: S-curves

Graph showing an S-shaped curve, with phases described in the text following

The S-curve visually represents the market lifecycle: the evolution of a technology or business model. The stages are:

S-curves can be long, e.g. cement, or short, e.g. fast fashion.

Market segmentation

The total potential market for an organisation is made up of people who have needs or wants the organisation can meet and who have the ability/authority to pay for the goods/services.

Organisations are unlikely to serve all potential customers with the same offering. Segmentation is the slicing of a market into sections, e.g. by geography, size of customer base, purchasing power, etc.

Strategically the organisation needs to choose which segments it needs to capture and retain and which it can ignore. Analysis of segments should include quantitative insights (e.g. total potential buyers, usage patterns, cost of access to that market) and qualitative (e.g. customer attitudes to your service, brand loyalty to competitors).

Segmentation allows you to allocate resources to the areas they can be most effective and tailor marketing more precisely.

Strategic positioning – generic strategies

Triangle with 'low cost', 'focused' and 'differentiation' at the corners

The goal is competitive advantage. But you need to be clear about what your strategic positioning is.

Positioning is what’s presented as valuable to customers: why should they buy your product/service? You offer the best value possible, and a perceived difference from the competition.

Michael Porter summaries it as: there are only three generic strategies for competitive advantage: low cost, differentiation (i.e. uniquely desirable products and services) and focus (i.e. a specialised service in a niche market).

The positioning can change along the product life-cycle, or as a strategy.

Five forces analysis

Within each industry, there is competition in different areas. Michael Porter outlined five forces with the potential to affect profitability. The forces can act individually or together, and they impact an organisation’s ability to create value.

Diagram showing the five forces as described below

You use the five forces analysis to work out your best competitive strategy. This might include withdrawing from a market where the pressures are too great. It can work well overlayed onto a PESTLE analysis.

For most organisations, the most important relationship is buyer power.

There is also the idea of a sixth force, ‘complements’. These are products/services that enhance the competitive position of a business. The classic example is smartphones and apps. They are produced by different companies but apps enhance a smartphone and a smartphone enables apps.

Next: internal analysis

So far, these are all models of analysing factors external to the company, but it’s important to also look internally, to help understand what resources we have at our disposal.


Capability is what can the organisation do. It manifests itself in what is produced.

Capability is the combination of competence – the ability to do something well – and capacity – the amount that can be done.

Capabilities can be tangible and easily measured, like what machinery exists in the factory, what processes and systems are in place, location, etc, but can also include non-tangible elements, like culture, relationships, knowledge, brand.

When you look closely at each element of capability, that uncovers the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the organisation and allows you think about whether it has the right tools to be relevant to the external environment and how well value can be added. A healthy organisation is one that can successfully manage capability to do what needs to be done now, and to be able to change to meet the demands of the future.

One of the most important aspects of capability is that it needs to be coherent; for example, you will struggle if you have great resources but an ineffective communication process or a conflicting organisational structure.

Core competence

A core competency is something that differentiates your company and allows you to establish leadership in that area, for example the design of how something works. Core competencies provide access to multiple markets, make a significant (rather than marginal) impact on the customer benefit, and should be difficult for competitors to imitate.

You can’t rely on them because of the speed of innovation, but you should monitor them and how well they are embodied in your core products and how well they are creating value for the customer.

A diagram I really like, relates to core competencies.

Quadrant with two axes: strategic importance and contribution to operational performance, as described below

If something is a core competency, it should be both of strategic importance and also contribute to operational performance, and you should retain it/build it in-house.

If it’s not a core competency, you should be looking to partner (high strategic importance, low contribution to operational performance), outsource (low strategic importance, high contribution to operational performance) or eliminate (low on both).

Threshold and distinctive capabilities: VRIN

Threshold capabilities are what’s required to participate: table stakes. Distinctive capabilities are what gives a competitive edge. Over time, as competitors innovate and the market matures, distinctive capabilities become threshold.

Another acronym, VRIN, is about what makes a capability distinctive:

Valuable – possible to monetise
Rare – scarcity is a route to being distinctive
Inimitable – hard to imitate
Non-substitutable – unlikely to be undermined by alternative approaches

A good example of this is when the iPod was created. Apple bought all the production capacity for small hard drives. Valuable because there was a market for it. Rare because they’d bought it up. Inimitable because smallness is the selling point. Non-substitutable because you don’t want to carry around 50 CDs.

That distinctive capability became threshold because it became a commodity, everyone could use small hard drives, and now irrelevant because now everyone uses flash storage.

Value chain analysis

Diagram with example value-creating activities and supporting activities as described below

In a value chain analysis you look at all the activities you do in your business. Some will be value-creating, such as customer service, outbound logistics, marketing and sales, and some will be supporting, for example procurement processes and HR.

In a value-chain analysis, you look at all of the value-adding activities and judge how much value is added to the customer at each stage. You can then decide where to focus, invest, cut costs, etc. Specifically: what can be done to add more value at each stage? This is a great activity for technology because at every stage you can add productivity or efficiency, as well as adding value.

For example, the value of elite fashion is in the design, brand marketing and service, not with making the actual garments. All manufacturing is executed in lower-cost regions of the world.

You first need to create the diagram for your own organisation. This model is from 1985; these days it will be much more rare for technology development to be a supporting rather than value-adding activity.

Bringing it all together: portfolio analysis

Now you’ve analysed the external world and explored the internal aspects of your organisation you bring it all together for an integrated picture.

If you have a number of products in your portfolio you can do a portfolio analysis. One way to do this is the BCG (Boston Consulting Group) matrix. Based on what you know from your previous analyses on products’ life-cycles, risk and where they might be headed, you put them on a chart. The size of the bubble is the amount of revenue/profit they generate, and you can add an arrow for where they are headed. The four quadrants are:

Diagram showing the four quadrants as described above with bubbles representing products

Products are not static. For example, a cash cow won’t always stay that way; a favourite example being Kodak, who didn’t anticipate (or couldn’t act on) people starting to share photos online rather than printing them out.


Another way to bring it all together is the model that most of us are familiar with: SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.

One great thing about this course was that they strongly said you should not do this first. As a tool on its own it is too blunt. But it’s great for pulling together all the other analyses once you have done them.

Three horizons

Once you’ve finished your analysis you need to decide what to do.

One tool for this is three horizons. No matter how effective the current business model is, it will change; it only represents a single point in time. Three horizons is looking towards the next business models.

Line showing three horizons as described below, each line progressively further out in time, higher in value, and less defined

Horizon 1: Current business model

Making the most of the current business model.

Horizon 2: Business building

A significant change from one business model to the next. When it’s embedded, horizon 2 becomes the new horizon 1.

Horizon 3: Visionary

Exploring and investing in new ideas that might be unproven and unprofitable for a significant period of time, usually years. The horizon 3 investments that show promise may form part of an eventual horizon 2.

The board should be thinking on 3 horizons simultaneously, in line with their vision/purpose.

Ansoff matrix

The Ansoff matrix can be used to chart the four main options for strategic growth. Growth can only come from two places: more or more valuable customers (markets), or more or more valuable products/solutions.

Ansoff matrix showing four quarters, as described below

Note that people often use “diversify” in conversation to mean product or market development. True diversification is both.

Blue Ocean approaches

The ‘Blue Ocean’ strategy from Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, is about focusing on uncontested space in the market (‘blue’ as contrasted with ‘red ocean’, coloured by blood of competitors!).

It is about creating new ‘value factors’ that haven’t been identified by any competitors, and then using those to attract markets who do not engage with competitors’ similar products. The classic example is the Nintendo Wii. Instead of competing with Microsoft and Sony for bigger and better GPUs it instead focused on motion controllability, saving money on every other aspect of the console and attracting a new market not previously into gaming, making it more of a family activity (think of Wii bowling).

The value factors have to be strong enough to change customer behaviour, and they also may not be defensible; competitors may also capitalise. However, it’s a good idea for boards to have Blue Ocean discussions, even though it is not necessarily easy.

Disruptive innovation

Distruptive innovation, as described below

The principle of disruptive innovation, as outlined by Clayton Christensen, is that established players may build in functionality that is over and above what is required by the market. A new player may come in, typically created by the novel intersection of two industries, and offer a recipe that has less functionality than offered by the established players. Because it’s simpler, it may be more affordable, and it may appeal to new or overlooked market segments.

Initially it is rarely high-performing. However, it has potential, and once it has disrupted the market, the damage is done. Usually the first-mover is not the one to benefit from the disruption but actually a fast second-mover. However, the act of the first move typically disrupts the industry irreversibly and in effect stimulates a new industry evolution ‘S-curve’, rendering the entire established sector redundant.

SAFe (no, not that one!)

When you’ve come up with ideas you need to decide what to do. One model to use is that the solution should be SAFe. Not scaled agile framework; but Suitable, Accessible, Feasible.

Suitable: Does it fit the mission, is it profitable, does it accord with the strategic analysis? Does it respond to the main challenge the organisation faces?

Acceptable: Is it within the level of risk accepted by the organisation? Will it be acceptable to customers, markets, employees, shareholders, etc? Does it meet fundamental values? Stakeholder analysis is important as strategic options without stakeholder buy-in are unlikely to succeed.

Feasible: Does the organisation have the capability in terms of resources (people, money, information)? Is the finance available over the strategic term? etc

Weighting and scoring

To choose between options you can use a weighting and scoring tool. You identify some screening criteria for each option, and assign a score to each one.

For example, if you are deciding between getting a cat or a dog. You might choose screening criteria of how devoted the pet will be to you, how much care it will require, and whether the cost suits your pocket. You then assign each a score out of ten and add them up.

Criteria Dog Cat
Devotion 9 3
Independence 3 8
Cost 4 6
  16 17

You can also weight it, for example, how independent the pet is might be the most important factor for you, so you might double or treble that score.

This can help decide between strategic options by identifying what the key criteria are. Again, the value of this tool is very much to support the discussion rather than just add up the scores.

Implementation web

The last model to talk about is how you are implementing the strategy.

A diagram of a web with the 8 areas below and scores of 0-10 availale for each

The exercise here is to score each of the following on a scale of 0-10. The resulting diagram shows where the ability to implement is strong and weak, and can also show where there is alignment and not by comparing scores of different team members.

To be continued

In my next post I talk about how to tie these together and use these models in practice.

Refactoring podcast: Good tech strategy bad tech strategy

23 June 2024 / Leadership / Strategy / Speaking

Last week I joined Luca Rossi on his podcast Refactoring. We had a great conversation about technical strategy and how that has looked in different places I’ve worked, how to communicate and work on strategy, and my own journey in tech.

You can watch the episode here or listen to it on Spotify, Apple, Overcast or other podcast apps.

Managing Managers podcast: Splitting time and tech strategy

16 May 2024 / Leadership / Strategy / Speaking

I recently joined Pat Kua on his Managing Managers podcast. We had a great conversation about many topics including strategy vs tactics, how to split your time as a technical leader and about my CTO role at Kooth, digital mental health for children and young people.

You can listen to it on Spotify or on the Managing Managers site with show notes and a transcript.

PS. We are hiring, in the UK and US!

For more posts, see the archive.