Embarking on a strategy? Here’s some hard-won advice
by Emanuele Capobianco, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer
I had helped to shape multi-year strategies before, at the Global Fund and at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. But I had never worked on the inaugural strategy of a new organization. Starting with a blank sheet of paper was exciting, a bit scary and also educational. Here’s what I learned.
Give it time
We were a typical start-up and we had to make a trade off between delivering a strategic document fast and efficiently and ensuring internal and external ownership. Our process took a year from start to finish. We had initially thought it could take three months. But it was a case of the process being just as important as the final product. The time we spent listening to key partners, asking questions, and being challenged on the various drafts was not a waste of time. It was a useful investment. It ensured internal buy-in for the strategy, providing our own staff with an institutional vision and a sense of purpose that will support the journey ahead of us. It also allowed us to connect with many of the partners we will work with in the future: the strategy process helped us to find a place in the crowded global health ecosystem and to be recognized as a credible actor. As importantly, by taking time to listen and incorporate feedback, we delivered a better quality product benefiting from the experience of others: an inclusive process with the right informants can teach a new organization how to avoid pitfalls that other organizations have experienced.
Engage your stakeholders. Meaningfully.
We are raising resources for global health so we strived to bring in people from different parts of the world, from the Mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone, to the former Chief of Staff in WHO, from venture capitalists to executives and former executives from UN agencies, from civil society to philanthropists, from WHO experts in countries to experts in the global health capitals. We balanced gender, geographical representation and interests. It was exhausting, intense and humbling to hear from these people with such a rich experience in many fields. The quality of feedback was deep and it was a privilege to be given so much of their time.
I remember one member of our Strategy Advisory Group telling us: ‘Focus, focus, focus’ as we had a blank sheet of paper and we were aiming to address the world’s health issues. It was humbling to hear that we had to be realistic to plan for three years and we couldn’t write a strategy that would take 10 or 15 years to achieve. Calibrating our institutional ambitions within different future scenarios was critical to make us land on a strategy that can hopefully be successfully implemented in the time available And yes, we eventually focused!
Be courageous (and honest)
Don’t fear criticism so much that you don’t seek advice. And don’t be afraid to say no. Writing a strategy is about making choices: you won’t reflect the steer or advice from everyone. You will make some people unhappy. But if the rationale behind the choices is transparently explained, people inside and outside your organization will eventually come along.
Seek balance and beauty
We had to leave things out. But we did so, knowing that we left in focus areas in which we can make a difference through raising resources for digital health transformations, climate and health, equity, primary healthcare and mental health. It’s like decorating a Christmas tree. You have the branches but if you overload it with baubles, it falls over and if they clash with one another, you end up with something unappealing. I wanted something solid and elegant, that could stand the test of time. I hope we achieved it.
Don’t do it alone and know when to pass on the baton
A strategy is a labor of love that cannot be completed alone. It requires a small village including a main writer, facilitators for the consultations, many internal and external stakeholders and someone directing the overall process, like an orchestra conductor. When you are reading the same draft for the fourth time and you lose yourself like a PhD student who can’t face looking at his or her thesis, bring in others from the team. Their fresh perspective will be invaluable.
I know strategies sound pretty dry but we had great facilitators and embarked on it with great spirit. It’s important to enjoy your work, even the nuts and bolts stuff. One of our facilitators was incredibly creative and he ended each session with a poem about the strategy. We laughed, we discussed, and we got to know each other deeply.
Through the strategy development process we wanted to reflect the organization’s values, including equity, impact, innovation, service and honesty. One of our values is joy and we really tried to live that, every step of the way.
Bring it to life
That’s the job for the next three years and beyond!
Find out more about the WHO Foundation Strategy 2023-2025