Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Laura Martin, Associate Director Project and Program Management at Wiley, with over nine years of experience working in strategy and operations in academic publishing; and Rashmi Verma, Deputy General Manager, Strategy at HarperCollins, with over a decade of experience working in corporate strategy in various industries. Our special thanks to Eileen Dolan, SVP Strategy at Wiley, for helping us to shape and better articulate our ideas.

The scholarly communications industry has seen considerable disruption in the past few decades, especially in the last two years. Constant change requires constant adaptation, and it often feels like this is something that is being done to us, rather than something that we have control over. This post encourages us to reframe this thinking and combine strategy and structure to drive sustainable growth and maintain relevance of the organization through change and disruptions. A methodical strategic planning process, coupled with a structured execution process, establishes a strong path forward for an organization to respond to challenges in a timely and efficient manner — and grow. In this post we share how we use our areas of expertise to collaborate and deliver transformational change in times of disruption.

Woman sketching a business plan on a placard at a creative office

How do we use strategy and structure to navigate disruption and change?

Laura: How many times have you heard or said the phrase, ‘unprecedented times,’ in the past two years? If you’re like me, your answer might be: too many times. But regardless of the last two years, the scholarly communications industry has been experiencing disruption almost constantly for the past few decades. Colleagues who began their careers 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago can attest that ways of working now bear very little resemblance to what was the norm when they started. And change will persist. In fact, it will only increase in speed and impact, especially as we continue to emerge from COVID-19 restrictions and, as a global community, start to navigate the ‘what’s next’. In the past two years, our customers and partners have experienced phenomenal change: think of students having to adjust to an online-only learning environment; researchers having to abandon their labs; conference-goers navigating a digital-first environment, complete with customizable avatars and complicated break-out chat rooms. Who among us hasn’t now used zoom? Our needs have changed to better navigate these restrictions and, likewise, our requirements for products and services have also changed. In response to our customers and partners, societies, libraries, and publishers have also had to explore new business models and new ways of working.

The temptation, in times of disruption, is to focus on cutting costs and weathering the storm; however, it is the organizations that invest in innovation and strategic thinking that will lead the way through the storm, and beyond. And, COVID-19 is just one example of disruption; our industry is looking at so many other new challenges to meet the needs of our customers and partners. Many of us are looking to solve similar challenges — from how to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive working environment, to how to close the gap between education and the job market, to how to deliver a great product and/or service in this predominantly digital-first environment. For example, many of us are navigating a more and more globally connected scholarly community and are looking to deepen ties with particular researcher and student communities. So, how should we be approaching these challenges and opportunities, to deliver faster and better results?

Rashmi: Disruptions and change are constant, but they’re also an opportunity for organizations to innovate and set a path for exponential growth! Successful organizations instill agility and strategic conversations as an ongoing practice in order to capitalize on these opportunities. Leadership teams constantly think about customers and partners, and whether there are better ways to engage them. This practice strengthens the business and helps the organization to create a response mechanism they can use during disruptions, in the form of comprehensive and accessible frameworks. As an example, very recently we saw global businesses rapidly adopting hybrid work arrangements allowing employees to work from remote locations and implementing suitable policies and processes to enable the shift. This was only possible because these organizations have been mindful about the technological readiness and cultural practices needed to drive a multidimensional and inclusive approach to change.

Furthermore, the organizations that successfully endure disruption will be those that continuously monitor trends and invest in transformative initiatives — anything from the use of cloud-based platforms for process optimization to revamping workforce policies to adapting to new business models and more. Successful organizations commission such initiatives on a regular basis, making use of disruptions to dramatically accelerate their performance. They also focus on establishing regular pathways for strategic planning and discussion. Recently, I came across a case study about a mid-sized product company that was struggling due to the impact of COVID-19. In their efforts to create alternative business models to steady their business, the biggest struggle was bringing the leadership team together to ideate or agree on a common solution. To minimize such challenges, regular strategic conversations help in developing response frameworks that are acceptable to the leadership teams and facilitate collective thinking capabilities.

Strategy provides a roadmap for staying relevant and facilitates its implementation via a methodical framework allowing an organization to consistently iterate, learn, and ultimately grow. This combination of strategy and methodical structure, in the form of program management, allows organizations to stay afloat, and better navigate a widely evolving market landscape. Corporate strategy is already a well-accepted function in large organizations, as well as in many mid-size and fast-growing businesses. Establishing strategy as a function — or even an Office of Strategy Management (or equivalent) — integrated with program management, helps ensure a fast and effective response to any kind of disruption, and in implementing positive change that endures.

So, what is an Office of Strategy Management, and what role does it play in developing a strategic mindset and effective response mechanism?

Rashmi: Future-looking organizations continuously engage their leadership teams and key stakeholders to invest time and resources in strategic planning. The processes and approach might differ for each business, but the objectives remain the same — to define a vision and approach for the business to work towards, and instill agility in the way disruption is managed.

A good strategy starts with a deep understanding of the business and its consumers, along with the right execution methodology to achieve the business objectives. The process of strategic planning broadly includes i) a purpose (of course with a thorough market understanding), ii) a value proposition (essentially answering why a customer should invest in the business), iii) the organization structure (how will the business operate), iv) a set of definitions for success at predetermined intervals, and v) a way of keeping track of the external environment, to allow the organization to adapt and stay relevant. However, even if you’ve got a great strategy, it might not be enough. According to leading think tanks and Cândido and Santos, (2015), ‘50–90% of strategic initiatives fail’. Although failure can be attributed to multiple reasons, from the point of view of strategy practitioners a major challenge is implementation. So, the question is, how to set up your organization for success and deliver better and faster results around the strategy? Who will be responsible to collaborate across leadership and functions to drive such results? This is where an Office of Strategy Management (OSM) comes into play.

The OSM takes a central role in steering the strategic planning process and, once defined, the OSM works towards implementing the strategy, together with relevant stakeholders — with the aim of enabling impacted stakeholders to adopt new policies, processes, and practices. Having a clear framework for strategy execution allows for better clarity around why to take up a task, what to expect, when and how to make it happen, and who is responsible for what. It allows the leadership team to quickly test hypotheses and amend the strategy, as well as enabling better communication and engagement with impacted stakeholders.

According to  the Harvard Business Review, ‘Many strategies fail to get implemented because they do not represent a set of clear choices’. Especially in times of constant change or threat, the strategy needs to be simple and well communicated to make it part of regular business decisions by all stakeholders. This enables a more effective environment for informed and aligned decisions or choices to achieve goals.

The strategic planning process (whether carried out by the OSM) must take a comprehensive approach to creating a roadmap for success and growth and helping to accelerate the response time in case of disruption. This requires a detailed and inclusive approach and implementation cycle that must be monitored, controlled, and corrected repeatedly. Therefore, a structured approach for development and execution through project or program management offers a very useful framework.

Take, for example, a PR management firm that decided to set up an OSM in order to drive some existing transformation projects, as well as creating a future roadmap. This was a two-pronged strategy, to a) station with the OSM crucial strategic projects that were not getting enough attention due to regular business activities; and b) assess and create solutions for the future, which are inclusive and planned together with existing leadership teams. As a result, the OSM defined short-term, mid-term, and long-term project goals to not only complete existing projects but also to create a framework to identify, develop, and drive strategic change projects. Each of the individual initiatives became part of a program, with its own structured execution plan. The OSM acts as a neutral and independent body facilitating program management and helping the organization to achieve a range of strategic goals, while also independently bringing the leadership team together for collective thinking.

How does program management help in strengthening strategy implementation?

Laura: Strategic thinking and innovation need structure to ensure successful implementation. It’s important to identify what level of structure is required, and whether a project or program approach would be most beneficial. You’ve probably heard of project management but might wonder what the difference is between project and program management. According to the Project Management Institute, a program is a group of related projects. The biggest difference between a project and a program is that a project is focused on clear, defined outputs, like a new system, process, or organizational structure, delivered within a finite period and set parameters. A program, however, is focused on the delivery of those outputs as they relate to outcomes — the results that the organization is trying to achieve with that new system, process, or structure, such as increased accessibility, efficiency, and organizational alignment. A program looks at the benefits of both the outputs and outcomes — like advantages to customers and partners that drive both increased customer engagement and satisfaction, as well as delivering advantages to the business, like increased employee retention and satisfaction, process efficiencies, and revenue. A program has a degree of flexibility in its approach, allowing new projects to be commissioned to achieve the desired long-term results. As a certified project and program manager, I have spent most of my career balancing these two disciplines, to enable the successful delivery of strategic aims, especially in times of disruption and change. The joy of program management for me is that a program is greater than the sum of its parts; a program manager can work across multiple projects to keep the focus on strategic objectives and ensure that the outputs are being constantly tied back to outcomes and benefits, so that the impact of the changes can be measured and considered. Program management adds incredible value in implementing an organization’s strategy with a proven methodology; together, corporate strategy and program management are the power ingredients needed to navigate disruption.

How to combine strategy and program management to deliver value

Laura and Rashmi: We have emphasized the relevance and combined value of these two functions in practice, so here is our five-step checklist to help your organization better translate its strategy into action:

  1. Start with your ideal end state: Once you have a thorough understanding of the market and the opportunity, it is easier to define the ‘why’ and ‘what success looks like’.  Defining your ideal end state will also help to bring others with you when you are building awareness and buy-in. Motivation impacts decision-making — when people have bought into your direction and approach, you are more likely to achieve the desired outcome. Spending time upfront visualizing what success will look like will not only keep you and your team motivated and on track, but will also help bring customers and partners with you on the journey too.
  2. Establish an inclusive planning process: Be as inclusive as possible with your core team, to ensure that your end users are represented and the solutions you develop are fit for purpose. This stage allows you to define the key milestones and critical path to test assumptions and learn. Activities could include:
    1. Defining the plan for achieving the objective and assessing the alignment of tasks against the strategy. Agree upon your process for sense-checking whether you’re on track, and if you need to change your approach.
    2. Identifying the resources needed, including key team members, any investment needed, and critical dates or deadlines.
    3. Defining the scope and a process for managing any scope changes. Assess the possibility of developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) solution, to help test market appetite and resource requirements.
    4. Don’t forget about the people’s side of change, to better support those impacted. I’ve discussed the importance of change management in a previous post because, no matter how good your project or program structure is, if you don’t take into account your people — who is involved, who is impacted, who must adapt to the required way of working — you will not realize the expected benefits as quickly.
    5. Identifying a framework to identify and mitigate risks.
    6. Identifying external environmental factors that should be monitored, including competitive landscape, regulations, etc. For instance, if you’re looking to expand your presence in a key market, are there governmental or legal implications that you need to consider first?
  3. Define your governance: Map and create a governance framework — from roles and responsibilities to your approach to reporting on and reviewing progress; to tracking decisions; to messaging for colleagues, customers, and partners. Clear governance will enable better decision-making, as it ensures the right people are involved with clear guidance on roles and responsibilities, as well as on expectations and information.
  4. Don’t be afraid to review, refine, and alter:  Regularly review your progress against desired outcomes. Strategy must be dynamic, constantly evolving to adapt to the needs of the micro- and macro-factors impacting the organization and its related projects. So, review the plan, capture lessons learned throughout the process, and refine your approach as needed. Being able to pivot ensures that your team has a flexible approach to delivering value — if it’s not working, or not moving fast enough, don’t be afraid to talk about it with the team and consider a different approach.
  5. Document your outcomes and learning: Appropriate closure of the projects within a program creates valuable references for the future. Documenting learnings helps your organization create a repository of success stories, as well as reference metrics.

The scholarly communications industry has been experiencing widespread and constant change for decades. Each of us have observed our customers face new challenges, and experience demands that require us to adapt our products and services to better serve and support them and their communities. Too often, to survive disruption, the decision is made to cut costs and stick it out. But clever industry contributors think strategically and innovate when they are facing uncertainty — like multiple global lockdowns. They look for the opportunity to do better and, if needed, change for their customers’ benefit. These successful disruptors deliver new strategies and innovations via applied iteration and learning, in which the problem or opportunity is better understood, the impact of specific solutions is measured, an inclusive approach is considered, progress is tracked, and there is a constant dialogue between outcomes and outputs.

Embracing adaptability with the methodical approach of Strategy and Program Management is key to flipping disruption into an opportunity to thrive.

Laura Martin

Laura Martin is a Senior Manager, Project & Program Management at Wiley, where she co-chairs the Women of Wiley Employee Resource Group. She has written about the importance of inclusion in delivering business change that “sticks” in The Scholarly Kitchen and is on the SSP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Laura has worked in strategy and business change roles in academic publishing for over eight years and is passionate about cultivating a cross-functional and inclusive approach to transformational business change. She lives in Oxford, UK.

Rashmi Verma

Rashmi Verma is Deputy General Manager, Strategy at HarperCollins. Rashmi has over a decade of experience working in corporate strategy in various industries.


1 Thought on "Guest Post — Corporate Strategy and Program Management: The Key to Navigating Disruption"

Great insights for managers. In these times when disruption has rather become the norm its crucial for managers to adapt improvised management approaches, especially people management. To add to the complexity is the need for quick digital transformation and technology adaptation.
How to combine strategy and programme management – glad to read inclusive planning process as a point here as this is one major element policy makers often ignore.
The post may be shared to benefit general management students and practicing professionals!

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