On Strategy— Tales from an Architect
In my previous post, I mentioned that a leader is a wearer of many hats. In this sharing, I shall put on my architect hat and discuss about the technical aspects of strategy– on why is it necessary, how do we craft it, and how it is implemented. While leadership is not intuitive, we are fortunate that I have learnt that strategy is a rather mechanical affair. Before you embark on this reading, let me assure you that what you receive here is an precious description of the organisation (KCL Blockchain) that I have painstakingly designed with my colleagues. I will also help you understand how fluffy terms like ‘values’ and ‘strategy’ help facilitate decision making and drive efficiency.
To my KCL Blockchain members, I hope you complete this reading as it will give you a deep understanding of what motivates us and how we conduct decision making as a leadership team.
What is Strategy?
To an architect, strategy is the blueprint that an organisation is built upon. According to Michael Porter, strategy is the ‘creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities’ (Porter et al., 2011). As a result of this positioning, it requires members of the organisation to make trade-offs to decide what to do and what not to do. This is important to ensure that we are focused on delivering value. An example of thinking through trade-offs would be, the decision to not spend on socials. On the one hand, spending on socials could attract more members. On the other hand, by not spending on socials, we could increase the amount of funds we have to spend on other other activities such as our website development. In our case, we have chosen the other activities.
In determining the set of activities to be conducted, the organisation has to consider how each activity complements and reinforces one another. The main benefit of having a clear strategy is that it puts everyone in the team on the same page as they understand what the leadership team prioritizes.
Additionally, by understanding strategy, members of the organisation can understand why are we doing things, have a decision-making framework, and see the relevance of our structure. It is a means to our ends. A way for us to accomplish our vision, which is to enable students to become involved in the blockchain space. In understanding this concept, one must not confuse it with operational efficiency, which is the ‘performance of similar activities better than our rivals performs them’ (Porter et al., 2011).
The activity map is helpful for us to understand what activities are in the set and how they interact to reinforce each other to produce value. It is important we review this annually to compare against our competitors because there is a tendency for competitive convergence. As other student societies begin to pick up on what we are doing, they would steadily start imitating our activity map to compete with us on better footing. To sustain our advantage, we need to constantly ask ourselves if our activities are really reinforcing and value enhancing. If they are reinforcing, then even if another society tries to imitate us in one aspect or a few, they would struggle to out-compete us because what we provide is a holistic service. Their performance might decline in the short term as well because they are approaching unknown territory. It is high risk and low reward for them. The compounded value generating effect of a reinforcing set of activities cannot be easily replicated.
Formulation — Strategy and Values
As an architect would tell you, before we can build an enterprise, we need to decide on the foundations. Its materials and design. So if strategy is the blueprint then vision and values are the foundations of the enterprise. According to Collins and Porras, great enterprises are rooted in their vision and core values, and their strategies should adapt to the dynamic world. For KCL Blockchain, our vision is to enable students in the blockchain space at the highest level; and our core values are:
- Equal Stake — every member has equal stake in our society. Therefore, every member has the right to make their voice heard on how they would like to shape the society. There is also a duty for everyone to promote the interests of our society.
- Entrepreneurialism — Members are encouraged to take advantage opportunities proactively. So for example, if my division directors require more hands for their projects, they are allowed to recruit, lead and expand their own project teams independently without presidential supervision or concurrence. Another example would be -When our Governance and Legal division learnt that the French Financial Conduct Authority was calling for research recommendations on cryptocurrency regulation. A team was swiftly organised and our research was submitted.
- Openness — Everyone and anyone is welcome to participate in KCL Blockchain activities. We do not discriminate based on gender/race/academic background/etc. For example, we are targeting members from the London community and not just King’s students. Some of them have become loyal fans of our work. This is also why Linkedin is part of our marketing distribution channels.
- Success Oriented — The effect of our output is measured and compared against a set of deliverable targets. This ensures that our members are encouraged to innovate to break barriers, have reasonable expectations and keeps us on our toes. For example, as president, I would look at marketing figures and discuss with the team how can we improve our facebook reach and conversions from our events. On operational issues, this means that we reduce administrative burdens on our members as much as possible to allow them to focus on doing the things that they are most interested in and best at.
Leadership renewal is a significant challenge with student societies because committees usually only serve for one term. There is little consistency. A great committee might be succeeded by a weak team. Vice versa.
At KCL Blockchain, this type of inconsistency is unacceptable as it would defeat the whole point of the endeavor. We are aspiring towards enabling students to participate at the highest level and this demands the highest output. We aren’t all about fun and games. If we were, then we would be having pints in the pub instead of pushing ourselves hard. We mitigate this transitional risk by anchoring our leadership team and society on our vision and values. We are also implementing a training program for our future leaders so they are inculcated with our vision and values for the year. So even if a new president has new ideas on how we operate and strategy, the purposes that they are pursuing would remain consistent. A total collapse of our society into complete obscurity in the future would be unlikely.
A key benefit of having a vision and values is that it ensures that everyone knows what they are getting into when they sign up for KCL Blockchain. There is no doubt. The bigness of our ambition provides our members with inspiration to push the boundaries and pursue excellence. It provides a unifying point as we constantly expand and decentralize. This is particularly important to KCL Blockchain because already our committee at 38 is larger than some module intakes and many societies. Most of our members have not even met each other. Thus, having a rallying point to find purpose in, provides strong motivation.
On values, it is something that we have decided as a leadership team that is most important to us. Our values represent who we are as a group of people. It is independent of how the environment is, or how other organisations are. At this juncture, I would remind my reader that our values are not for show. They are translated into every significant and small decision that we make. By having a value system, when having discussions, we have a framework through which to decide between the trade-offs. As president, I am constantly communicating the importance of our values to our members and this has begun to influence their thinking. In meetings, discussions are ‘won’ and ‘lost’ based on how well one can justify their rationale using the value set.
One would ask why are there only four values? The answer is that having any more would just dilute the significance of what we have and only a few things can be considered truly core. Based on Collins and Porras’s research, none of the visionary companies had more than five core values.
Next, let us take a look at our organisation chart:
One of the well-known sayings in our society is that we are building flat like a pancake and not tall like a military. At KCL Blockchain, we are firm believers of equality. We believe there is no need for many layers of bureaucracy and our people have the necessary competence to do the right things. What equality does for us is that, We prefer a flat structure with a tight decision making nucleus that represents the leadership. This allows us to make decisions efficiently and effectively.
Additionally, what equality and openness means in our structure is that our society is open. So, when we share our introduction slide deck, we are always emphasizing how we value our people and their voice. This also helps our members understand that the main offering of KCL Blockchain is not titles like most societies. We are not a closed society committee in that they are only a set number of people who can join the team. For us, anyone can join. Everyone shares in the success of the society as a whole. Everyone should know that they own a piece of the society, and they can go forth and expand our enterprise as much as they want according to how much they can.
The ambition is that, whenever our members indicates KCL Blockchain Member on their CV. It should mean much more to employers than any other society at King’s/England.
In terms of our leadership, the four values anchor every decision we make. It prevents any single person from dominating the room. Therefore, even though I am president, I cannot have my way with everything. I need to justify myself through the framework and when I make mistakes, there are people to help me out. The added benefit is that when my team mates seek guidance from me, I am able to rely on the value system to provide them with a justifiable and coherent answer. So through the value system, we have created a reflective leadership team. An effective safeguard against authoritarianism and incompetence.
Another component of the KCL Blockchain vision is our Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG). It is the mountain that we strive to overcome. Once we cross these types of mountains, the leadership defines the next one, so on and so forth. The thing that we keep chasing. It is immense and highly focused. It makes our work exciting!For us it is to be like Berkeley and eventually offer blockchain consultation services by our student members. This is the best way to demonstrate that we have the necessary blockchain expertise to really participate in the space. To that end, it is likely that a future president will have to organise a professional consulting division or modify our existing strategy. That is fine, because strategies need to fit the times. The odds of us reaching this goal within the next two years is low but we shall keep working hard towards it.
Formulation — Blue Ocean vs Red Ocean
The next step of building an enterprise is applying the paint. An architect will tell you that in enterprise building, there are only two colors — Blue or Red. By deciding which color to paint the enterprise, we decide on what type of markets are we operating in.
The key differences between Blue and Red are:
For us, we do not want to be competing in the Red space because it is saturated and competition is rife. Most societies operate in this space because when founders first create societies, they look to other societies for their operational model and stick to it.
In our opinion, blue is a much better color to adopt. As a society that has such a grand vision, only complete dominance and market leadership is acceptable. Moreover, being in a blue ocean creates barriers to imitation for our competitors, thereby allowing us to preserve our advantage for a few generations. It is much harder for other societies to copy our strategy because they would have to imitate our entire system. And even if they did, our first mover advantage would have widened the gap by far enough a margin that dominating us would be difficult. We are also constantly evolving to become better so we should always be one step ahead of the curve.
So how do we go about adopting blue? It does not take revolutionary technology, mountain loads of funding or divergence from the KCL Student Union (KCLSU) By Laws. The process is simple — we first look at the existing principles that govern our competition and assess what activities can we do to provide output that our market base would value. Currently student societies are mostly inward looking. All their activity sets were pre-defined by their original founders with little capacity to innovate. Most of their events are public lectures about their narrow interest; whereby a famous person comes, delivers a speech, and everyone goes home. The student members organizing the event are never really the center of attention.
So what does our market base need? They need access to a platform to find out about blockchain effectively and efficiently. This means that we need to create a constant pipeline of events, curation and blogs, to satiate the public’s demand. The speaker’s background is important but all they need to be is someone who actually knows their stuff.
For KCL Blockchain, I have taken a look at existing structures and injected some new elements. On personnel — The first thing I removed was the rigid committee system. Most student societies have a fixed amount of positions and they are extremely reliant on their president for direction. At KCL Blockchain, I have innovated by creating a structure that allows for continuous expansion. This is not against KCLSU regulations. On our structure, we have also segmented ourselves into the distinct topics in blockchain rather than limiting ourselves purely to cryptocurrency. This gives us the ability to have multiple angles to discuss about the topic and greater incentive for our attendees to come for our events.
On our website, instead of having a traditional website that just tells everyone who we are. We have created a value-first website that has a Time-Out London-like event curation segment that informs the London society what blockchain events are happening in London. Through that we are providing the London community a rallying point to look for London based activities. We have also included a blog that is constantly updated to provide a platform to distribute our research and blog articles. These channels make our students the front and center of participation and gives us greater opportunities to provide value to our sponsors. We are constantly upgrading and updating our work so catching up is going to be hard for other teams.
This is just among many other things. To understand the full extent of how blue ocean we are, just take a look at our activity map.
With a blueprint, a foundation and color; our enterprise is finally complete! I could go on and on about the finer details but I shall save that for another time. To my KCL Blockchain buddies, I hope this sharing gives you a much clearer understanding of what our society is trying to accomplish and the how. I sincerely hope that it motivates you to do more and it gives you a sense of purpose. At this juncture, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the people from Westgrove Partners for their guidance and my warm rice for constantly supporting my efforts. Thank you very much for reading till the end. I hope you found this helpful. I shall continue working hard to build this team. Message me if you’re interested to join.
Always in the game,
Chan, K., Mauborgne, R. and Porter, M.E. (2011) HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Strategy. Boston: Harvard Business Review
Collins, J. (1994) Built to Last. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Collins, J. and Hansen, M. T. (2011) Great by Choice. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Alternatively, you can get these few articles from HBR online:
- What is Strategy? by Michael E. Porter
- Building your Company’s Vision. By James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras
- Blue Ocean Strategy. By W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
- Who Has the D? How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organisational Performance. By Paul Rogers and Marcia Blenko
For those who are up for a bit of fun and would like to see how a leader thinks differently from the average person. Please read — Kingdom Manga Chapters 530 to 537. Kingdom is a manga about the warring states. In these selected chapters, our author covers what a great general would do and sees in the face of adversity. Disclaimer: I do not own the material.