Image: Ian Thornton presenting at the 2018 Wellcome International Engagement Workshop | Minh Tan

Ian Thornton is a Senior Project Manager at Dalberg, a development consultancy. He is an expert on sustainable development as well as effective strategy production and project management. Ian presented an introduction to  developing a strategy  to attendees of the 2018 Wellcome International Engagement Workshop. He emphasised that this is not the only way of developing a strategy, but this method draws on corporate strategy and can offer value to those working in engagement.

What is a strategy?

Strategy can be defined (in a ‘science-y’ way, according to Ian) as:

“an actionable plan to optimise for one or two variables within a set of constraints”

Ian broke down this jargon-filled definition as follows:

“Actionable” = feasible, realistic and achievable

“One or two” = focused on a realistic number of goals – a strategy cannot aim to achieve everything

“Variables” = Actions or audiences that can fit different sectors, organisations or challenges (as Ian calls it, “sector agnostic”)

“Within a set of constraints” = The strategy should be grounded in real world challenges, as the context and circumstances surrounding an issue determines whether any strategy is truly actionable or relevant.

Why is a specific strategy important?

To highlight the importance of making choices in strategy development, Ian compared quotes from the CEOs of two competing computing companies, Compaq and HP, in the late 1990s/early 2000s:

Image: The CEO quotes | Ian Thornton

Both sold computer-related technologies and services. As you can see from their CEO’s quotes, Compaq’s strategy was diffuse and unfocused, whereas HP’s was specific and direct. Compaq was bought by HP in 2002, and HP is still a highly successful computing company – demonstrating the importance of knowing your goals, your competitors, and not trying to spread yourself too thinly. Aiming to achieve everything, and trying to do it too quickly, may leave you like Compaq!

Ian emphasises that a strategy can only be truly valuable if discipline is exercised when creating it; for example a Theory of Change or strategy plan that is waffly and non-specific offers no value. This means you might have to prioritise, but that’s ok!

What is the difference between a strategy and a plan?

For Ian, a plan tells you what to do, while a strategy helps you make decisions about what – and what not – to do. Plans focus on individual aspects of the overall strategy. More specifically, the difference between a plan and a strategy comes down to a number of elements:

-       Scale: a strategy is large scale and covers a whole scheme, whereas elements of the scheme will likely have specific plans.

-       Specificity: plans will detail specific activities compared to a strategy which will look at the overall programme.

-       Timeframe: plans will likely be shorter-term than the overall strategy.

-       Uncertainty: strategies will have a certain amount of uncertainty, while plans will be specific and activity-focused.

-       Focus – of outcomes or activities: the strategy will focus on outcomes of the entire programme and what each activity together will achieve. Plans will look at how to implement each activity effectively.

What can I use to start thinking about my own strategy?

Ian gave workshop attendees a number of questions, or prompts, that they could use to shape their own thinking around strategy development:

-       What do you want to achieve?

  • What are the barriers and opportunities to achieving these goals?

-       What are the key assumptions underlying what you aim to do?

  • Which are in your control?
  • Which are in your influence?
  • Which are out of your control?

-       What relies on what? Do some elements depend on other things happening, or not happening, to come to fruition? Are some issues ‘first order’, and others ‘second order’?

-       What is the ‘rate limiting step’ i.e. which aspect could bring everything else to a halt, or allow for the greatest change?

-       What are you going to stop doing, or not include in your strategy?

  • What might you allow or encourage others to do instead?

-       What do you need to do to test your assumptions?

  • What if your assumptions are wrong?

-       How can you test that you’re on course and achieving your aims?

The exercise that Ian led encouraged groups to address these questions in turn. For many, this was a new way to approach developing a strategy. It is a straight forward and simple way to start thinking about your project, team, or organisation’s unique offer in the field.

Download Ian’s slides here (PDF).


The content on this page forms part of the online report for the 2018 International Engagement Workshop “Taking it to the Next Level: How can we generate leadership and develop practice in engagement?". To learn more about the workshop, access the rest of the report and browse the video presentations, discussion summaries, and tools, visit the workshop page 

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