Russell Davies's strategy advice
08 July 2019
Last year, I met the excellent Russell Davies to ask his advice on how to create a strategy. Russell was the Director of Strategy at the Government Digital Service while I was there. He and the internal comms team did an amazing job of making sure we were all aware of what we were doing and why.
When I needed to create the tech strategy for my team at the Financial Times, Russell gave me some really useful advice, and has kindly agreed to let me share that here.
- The most important role of a strategy is to tell us what we are not going to do.
- The strategy needs to be clear, concise and catchy.
- A structure could be something like: 5 things we should do. Three will be obvious, one may be a surprise.
- You need all versions of the strategy. The 30-second version, the 30-minute version and the full write-up. And then, the communication: mugs, stickers, posters, etc. Russell said “It will feel like propaganda; but no-one will notice” and this is true – while I was at GDS it did not feel like propaganda to me, it just felt like a really clear communication of what we stood for and what we were doing.
- If you don’t have the channels to communicate your strategy, you may need to set them up. For example, if there is no team meeting, set one up – but make the first one about something other than the strategy, and then introduce it later. Russell is definitely a fan of getting everyone together, and even for a tech strategy this should include other disciplines, e.g. product, UX.
- Don’t get too hung up on what’s strategy, what’s principles, etc.
- Listen to what people say, what they want to do. Russell gave the example of “Make things open: it makes things better”. Listen to what people say they want to do, and sometime when people are talking about it, someone will come up with a catchy phrase in conversation. Use that.
- A strategy is a tool to allow you to say “if we do that, then we can’t do this”. Keep talking about it. Later, when something comes up that is against the strategy, people will recognise that and say “oh yes, you’ve been talking about that for years.”
- Russell never goes into a quiet room and works out a strategy on his own. When working on strategy, he talks to people and they create it together.
- He had a great suggestion of following a roadmap session that we used to do at GDS. Everyone writes down on index cards what should we do this year, and then place them on the floor – close to you if soon, further away if later. Then you all walk the floor together, talk about the cards, dependencies and likelihood of getting all those things done, and as you go you move things around or throw things out. We did this on my team when initially working out our tech strategy, and it was really useful for gathering ideas we hadn’t thought of, and having a discussion that meant we were all on the same page.
- (Tom Loosemore ran this type of roadmap session a few times at GDS, and I talked to Tom about the nuts and bolts of how to run it. He said have a smallish group – no more than about 12 – start by outlining the goals, takes about a day. It needs someone very strict to run it: “Really?! Are we really going to do that in the next 3 months?!”. Once you get into the details of actually working out the roadmap for individual products or services, Tom also recommended Jamie Arnold’s Seven questions to build a roadmap.)
- When reviewing this post, Russell added something else about communicating strategy: “I once heard a story about Muhammed Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee. As you can imagine, it was quite hard to tell Ali what to do so Dundee would just wait until Ali did the right thing and then praise it fulsomely. Communicating strategy might be a bit like that. Wait until people say something good about the strategy and then use that. (Where ‘waiting’ means ‘very carefully listening for’)”
As well as some very useful advice, Russell gave me the book Good Strategy Bad Strategy, which I have written some more notes on.
He also has some more information and examples about strategy on his website.
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