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Macmillan Cancer Support - emerging strategy

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An overview of how strategy works at Macmillan Cancer Support by Juliet Bouverie, Director of Corporate Development.

Macmillan LogoMacmillan Cancer Support has an ambition to reach and improve the lives of everyone living with cancer. This is an account of how their strategy to deliver this ambition has become a reality.

Evolving and emerging strategy

My reflection on strategy is that it is very much an evolving process. I always worry when I see a printed glossy five-year document because of my concerns that it sits on a shelf and doesn’t remain ‘fresh’. Actually strategies and plans need to be agile, responsive, able to adapt to changing circumstances because unplanned things happen.

Changing circumstances include those in the external environment – things like a recession and new unmet beneficiary needs arising from research – and those in the internal environment like a change in leadership or a change in priorities.

The process we adopt at Macmillan is mostly emergent (as opposed to deliberative). This is not an excuse for ‘seat of the pants stuff’ and is more about the right balance between emergent and deliberative strategy. Creating a place for emergent strategy is about being responsive and having an overall strategic framework to give some structure and within which the emergent strategy can fit.

Linking individual and team objectives

It involves getting people to really understand the overall strategy, buy in to it and feel motivated by it. Most important is that they can see how their role contributes to achieving the strategy; organisations really do need a 'golden thread' linking individual and team objectives with the overall corporate picture.

At Macmillan the development of the corporate strategy is a collective responsibility of trustees and directors; it’s our responsibility to make sure this overall framework remains relevant, challenging and alive.

We have a small team called 'strategy implementation' to provide help and support. They help ensure that our strategy and sub-strategies are clear and aligned and progress is appropriately tracked and communicated. They also work with managers to build their skills in strategy development and planning. 

Getting the direction right

Our strategy development process involves a number of factors:

Horizon scanning/blue-sky thinking

We hold a seminal two-day away day once a year with the Executive Management Team (EMT) and the board. Here we talk about the bigger picture, strategic issues and the external environment. It’s very participative, open and stimulating and lots of advance work goes on to ensure we get the right balance of content, the right external speakers, research papers and so on. The whole purpose of the meeting is to stretch and challenge our thinking; ultimately to make sure that we are thinking about the right things.

The time before last we looked at trends, the future of cancer care (for example, we got Cancer Research UK to come along to the meeting), and made the focus of the meeting the future needs of people affected by cancer in 20 years time (we fed the results of some interactive beneficiary research into the meeting).

Corporate Strategy/three-year corporate objectives

Based on these strategy inputs and in the light of our ambition (to reach and improve the lives of everyone living with cancer), we emerge with a strategic framework. 

This framework is a set of corporate objectives which sets the agenda for delivery of our ambition for the next three years and informs the plans of each directorate or region and eventually each team and individual. 

Macmillan Cancer Support strategic framework

Description of the diagram

The strategic framework is presented as a triangle, with five layers of strategy. Working from the top down, the layers are:

  • ambition
  • three-year corporate objectives
  • one-year corporate 'must dos'
  • directorate/regional plans
  • team and individual plans.

Keeping people focused

One of the things we struggle with at Macmillan is keeping people focused.  We are moving from a situation where we were ‘confused’ about our corporate strategy, to now being clear but terribly ‘busy’. We want to move from being ‘busy’ to becoming more ‘focused’.

One of the tools we have developed to help with this is a set of one-year corporate must-dos for 2009. There are 10 of these – possibly too many – but they are helping to remind us of the top priorities and we dedicate time at each EMT meeting to discuss progress against one or more of the must-dos.

They were also useful during the planning process in helping people to work out where to allocate resources in terms of time and money.

How the cascade works

We developed the corporate strategy and three-year corporate objectives through a process of iteration and discussion – this involved collating the strategy, receiving feedback through discussion at meetings, and refining it further. We saw it as being the start of a dialogue about strategy.

These discussions are also helping to highlight the linkages between strategies – we are starting to move towards our different sub-strategies (addressing areas like services, fundraising, external affairs, people) becoming more integrated.

The corporate strategy is currently held in a PowerPoint presentation – we will be producing a printed version later this year – the paper version is a by-product really, the most important thing is the dialogue.

What about the feedback loop?

We have regular reporting against the objectives and a corporate scorecard that the board gets each quarter. The whole strategy is closely integrated with day to day work because we have our pay linked to performance (measured by performance against objectives, competencies and values). So the whole system of objective setting and performance against objectives matters at an individual level. People take it pretty seriously.

We have also set up a number of EMT sub-groups to deal with operational matters which enables the full EMT to concentrate on strategy and policy. One of these sub-groups deals with performance issues – both financial and non-financial.

We are planning for this group to consider complex issues that appear as ‘red’ on the 'dashboard' if the management response is not altogether clear and straightforward.

Staff have an opportunity to ask questions about our strategy through a number of different channels – management meetings, online cafes with our chief executive, our staff consultation forum, etc.  We also spend time and research on listening to people affected by cancer; we know it’s vitally important that our strategy is grounded in the things that really matter to people affected by cancer.

However, I think we have more to do to involve Macmillan volunteers and professionals in the strategy process so that we capture their ideas and experiences more systematically.  We need to get better at involving the ‘wider Macmillan family’ in our strategy process so that they feel part of our agenda. 

The current strategy (including the vital ambition) only lasts to the end of 2010, so we will be going through a more formal strategic planning process this year. This will include more stakeholder engagement and will include as much focus on ‘how’ we implement the strategy and the skills and capabilities we need, as much as the ‘what’ we need to do.

What about evaluation and learning?

Evaluation and reporting back on the strategy isn’t just a paper exercise, we do it because we find value in it – it motivates us to look back and celebrate; it helps to bring the strategy alive and to stimulate good discussions.

The weakness is that we tend to report on what’s easy to report on – financials and things that are easy to measure, though we do have a number of ongoing surveys that monitor awareness and perception. We are short on qualitative measures – particularly our ability to evidence the effect of the services we provide.

We are fantastic at collecting stories and anecdotes about the difference we make to people’s quality of life, but we need more than this. We need evidence about the effectiveness of our services and our wider impact, both on people’s individual health and well-being and on the health and social care system within which cancer services are delivered. 

It’s in our plan for next year that we do more work on this and we will be adopting a balanced scorecard approach for measuring performance against the corporate aims and objectives. We are currently piloting the use of the tool in two areas to enable us to fully understand its value, then will roll out in 2010.

Back to the people

I have a brief for both strategy and HR. This is perfect because strategy is nothing without people. Our priority is to ensure that we have staff who are skilled and committed to deliver the strategy.

This has involved us in carrying out research to understand what the key skills are that we need to drive our strategy, and trying to create a learning organisation culture. We’re trying to move the culture away from training towards one of learning.

An example of this is the Planning Champions network that we’ve set up whereby one representative from each directorate and region with a special interest and responsibility for planning get together every quarter to share skills and experience and coach their colleagues. It’s a subtle shift of emphasis and we haven’t got there yet, but know that there is much more we can do to improve what we do and learn from each other. 

We’re not perfect and there is much to do, but…

We’ve come a long way in the last 18 months to really craft a corporate strategy that represents a common understanding of everyone in the organisation, and provides a knit across.

In the past we’ve had strategies but they have been built around the structure rather than around a sense of a shared future. Now we have a common understanding not just of our own role, but also of what other teams and functions are delivering.

Page last edited Jun 26, 2017
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