One page: Building the right strategy requires ‘just enough leadership’

Ian Merrill
June 28, 2022

Welcome to ‘One page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.


Building the right strategy requires ‘just enough leadership’


Last month, I talked about the role of culture in driving positive organisational change, especially when the operating environment is challenging and your industry is often criticised. It is easy to become defensive, blame others, and fall short of the expectations of those you are trying to help. As a result, getting your culture in order is a necessary first step if you want to drive change.


Along with nurturing the right culture, a realistic path to success is needed. This can be from where you are as an organisation, to where you want to be in the future. Such a journey should include things that you have some control over in the environment you work. Having a clear strategy, based on an assessment of all the issues you face, is a key component of the ‘success map’.


Building a new strategy was crucial for Shannon Trust.


We believed a new strategy was required because ‘our world’ was changing. The rising prison population, fewer prison staff to support our work, challenges to our usual sources of income, and new prison regimes; these were some of the things we faced after the pandemic.


Our changed culture was sowing the seeds of a renewed ambition to do much more; to support more learners in prison, to develop a strong community presence so that learning could continue after release, and to broaden our offer to address other skills gaps, such as basic maths.


During summer 2021,we worked through 'what if' scenarios with all our stakeholders. What if we could generate more income? How many more learners could we support, both inside and outside of prison? How could we use digital development to achieve our mission? How could we broaden our offer to learners without losing the sight of what we are about? To borrow from Jim Collins, how can we “preserve the core, whilst stimulating progress”?


All of these questions came from the knowledge that despite our best efforts, thousands of people in prison are still unable to read or do basic maths.


Conversations among our staff, volunteers, mentors, leaners and partners helped to shape our thinking, improve our ideas and grow confidence in what we could achieve. We were able to imagine a different future by asking ‘what if’ questions. A future where our efforts can align with the challenges we could see on the horizon. And importantly, a future where our teams could bring their own stamp to how that future would look. We set a framework for what we would do, and then encouraged our teams to shape that further with their own creativity, local knowledge and unique energy.  


We ended up with a 3 year strategy that will enable Shannon Trust to raise its game, all while developing long term sustainability.


Looking back, it is clear that ‘just enough leadership’ was the best and most productive approach to building our organisational strategy. Our leadership team set the direction, and then created the space and support for our colleagues to develop the thinking, to thrive and deliver.


Setting a new strategic direction can be challenging, not least in letting go of ways of working that have stopped giving results. Yet, executing a new strategy is often where organisations can come unstuck.


I will look at how Shannon Trust is executing its strategy in my next blog.

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