What is a strategy hack?

What is a strategy hack?

In the world of innovation and strategy the term Hack has emerged to help unlock solutions. I remember the first time I heard it was about a year ago when I was telling a serial entrepreneur friend of mine about my business and he said – ‘oh so you growth hack businesses?’ At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about or if that was a good or a bad thing – as the term hack can also have some negative connotations – but the answer now is yes I do.

Since then I’ve come across the hack concept many times – particularly in start-ups and university contexts. If I suggest the concept to clients I find the term gets mixed reactions, so I thought I’d share some insights.


What is a strategy hack?

A strategy hack is essentially bringing a bunch of people together to work collaboratively and in a semi-structured way to find new ideas and creative approaches to unlocking and accelerate opportunities – for entrepreneurs, start-ups or even more mature organisations.

‘Unlocking’ is a fundamental part of the Hack – seeing or accessing what you otherwise might not have seen – to create rapid solutions that are imperfect but workable.

The idea is to problem solve real issues and real solutions with a rapid and more agile approach. A related concept is growth hacking – which is really about identifying and testing rapid growth strategies in a start-up environment to see what does and doesn’t works work quickly to fast-track growth. A Strategy Hack can help identify these growth hacking strategies.

How does a Hack differ from design thinking or strategy workshop?

‘Hack’ is definitely a cooler name than a workshop and the focus is more on generating innovative and actionable solutions, usually in a start-up environment. Hacks often draw a lot on design thinking methodology and tools, particularly using empathy maps and customer journey. They also may involve pitching business ideas to be hacked. More traditional strategy workshop agendas may throw in a bit more on diagnostic, market analysis & size of the prize, longer term vision and strategic goals, strategic initiatives, risks and challenges, and understanding what is holding you back.

Most often the Hack concept is used to test and rapidly generate practical growth solutions for new ventures or products – which need the idea tested. The aim is to more quickly find ways to unlock growth and impact with minimum resources – and not spend too much time on strategising if the opportunity is not going to fly.

We also see the Hack concept being used in other settings where questions being hacked are often ones that may be in the ‘too hard’ basket or those which require a cross disciplinary solution – such as how do we solve the world’s waste problems? How can we create more inclusive workplaces? How might we reshape education for the future?

The pace is usually more rapid and fluid and there are even more post it notes and whiteboards involved! We are also seeing the integration of technology and real-time prototyping in these sessions.

Hacks also tend to more physically involved – i.e. standing, workshopping, drawing, building – rather than sitting.

What are the benefits of a Strategy Hack?

Hacks are a great way to bring a diverse collection of people together to generate ideas that you may not otherwise gain in more traditional strategy processes. For start-ups the Hack concept is a great way to tap into the wisdom of a diverse bunch of people focused on finding and unlocking value in your business or product quickly.

For large organisations that are adopting the Hack concept – by bringing together people from different divisions and from all different levels of the organisation – strategy and innovation can come from all and any part of the organisation – not just the senior leadership (in a traditional strategy offsite).

Because of this - the other benefit that comes from a Hack that you might not get from a more traditional strategy process is that you can see a problem, challenge or opportunity from a different perspective or from a stakeholders’ point of view – this means that solutions can be developed based on new and different insights.

Hacks are deliberately messier than more traditional strategy workshops and through this messier and more fluid process they can be more fun. And when we have fun – we can access different ideas individually and collectively.

What you may not get out of a Strategy Hack that you do from other strategy processes?

Hacks unlock ideas using speed, diversity and insights – but what they might not give you is long term goal, or the prioritisation, sequencing and operationalisation of ideas generated.

What this means is that while a Hack can be a great way of getting the ideas – it really is only one part of the strategy process. There is a fair bit of work that needs to take place in the lead up to the hack – for example framing the question, knowing your purpose and why you’re trying to generate ideas, thinking through what you are going to do with the ideas. Also in preparation, I like to interview some of the attendees before the event and have a really clear objective and format for the Hack – knowing that I may need to throw it out on the day and go with the flow.

To make the most of the ideas that come out of the Hack – there is a need to work through the ideas – which ones stack up, which ones are you going to test, how do these ideas fit in with your current strategy – do they shift the course of action? How are you going to prioritise them and make them happen?

The Hack itself usually does not give you too much on how to operationalise the idea – so for maximum benefit – it’s important to work through the execution of the ideas.


What are the mixed reactions to the Hack concept?

The Hack concept is more popular in the start-up world that with SMEs or large corporates but we are starting to see some large corporates pick up the idea and adopt start-up methodologies to unlock innovation.

I generally find that the Hack concept is less appealing to SME owners who are more interested in commercial over cool. They want their strategy sessions to be focused on delivering results aligned with the long-term vision. This is not to say that Hacks don’t produce commercial results – actually that is their very aim – but it more reflects that SMEs owners and start-ups do have a different set of challenges and the strategy processes need to reflect that.

What are your thoughts…

I do really like the strategy Hack concept and process. Hacks can be very useful for a business of any size regardless of whether you’re a start-up or a large corporate trying to introduce more innovative approaches to solving issues.

Given how fast the business world is evolving and how many trends there are to keep up with the more insights you can draw on from a diverse group to develop strategy the better. This is particularly beneficial if the senior leadership team is not particularly diverse in its make-up.

Any opportunity you have to work on your business, not just in your business, is a good thing. My view is however, that Hacks need to be coupled with other elements of a strategy process so that the rubber actually hits road and we can make things happen through aligned and well executed strategy.

I would love to you know what you think about this evolving concept and how it has worked in practice for you?


Heidi Sundin is the Director of The Agenda Agency — a boutique consulting firm specialising in corporate strategy, SME growth and gender strategy. She works with organisations to drive growth, innovation and gender diversity. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer-centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans strategy development and creating transformational programs across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors. Check out theagendaagency.com