What is a strategic framework and why do you need one?

Does your business have a sustainability program that addresses material, environmental, social, and corporate governance risks and opportunities? If yes, can you answer the following questions?

  • How do your program initiatives ladder up to one overarching goal or purpose?
  • How do they support your business strategy?
  • How do they relate to each other?

If you are struggling to connect the dots, a strategic framework provides much-needed clarity and direction regarding your sustainability programs and why they matter to your stakeholders. At thinkPARALLAX, we strongly encourage our clients to develop a strategic framework to guide their messaging and strategy. Not only does a framework ensure consistent messaging, but it also challenges teams to think critically about their overarching goals, and whether or not individual sustainability initiatives are aligned and material to the company’s business.

What is a strategic framework?
A strategic framework is an externally facing, visual outline of activities that make up an organization’s or department’s overarching strategy. A framework serves as the foundation for internal and external messaging, organizing all priorities and initiatives into strategic drivers or pillars that ladder up to a high-level goal or purpose. A strong framework is aspirational, designed to inspire stakeholders and demonstrate how the organization is working towards their vision, purpose, or goals. If your strategy is a building a house, your framework is the blueprint.

A strategic framework typically includes the following elements:

Theme – alluding to your overall goal or purpose.
Strategic drivers or pillars –  aligned with your business priorities, aspirational goals, and research. Consider aligning each strategic driver or pillar with one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in an effort to join a global narrative.
Programs or initiatives – each housed beneath the relevant strategic driver or pillar.

We helped strengthen International Paper and ScotiaBank’s sustainability strategies by developing a strategic framework aligned with their business priorities. Take a look at the examples below.

Why do you need a strategic framework?
Developing a strategic framework is the first step in creating a compelling narrative to elevate your brand. It ensures consistent messaging, which is essential in building brand trust. From an internal standpoint, a framework defines your strategic focus and gives your team a clear vision of what they are working to achieve. For external audiences, a framework clearly illustrates your core purpose and exemplifies how your actions match your intentions.

Not only does a strategic framework align your messaging, but it also inspires and guides action. A framework addresses the questions of Why, What, and How, which helps stakeholders understand why it matters to them and how they can be active participants in achieving your strategic goals.

Without a strategic framework, you run the risk of inconsistent messaging, a disjointed strategy, and a lack of direction. You may introduce new programs that do not directly support your goals. Your stakeholders might not fully understand your purpose and your employees may lose motivation. A strategic framework addresses all these issues. It’s not just an outline of current initiatives, but a roadmap for success. For that reason, a strong strategic framework is imperative for high performance and growth.

Bringing it to life: five considerations

1 – Do your research.
Because a strategic framework is key in driving your strategy, conducting extensive research is an essential first step. This can include industry benchmarking, communication audits, stakeholder interviews, consumer focus groups, materiality assessments, and more. Some questions your research should aim to answer include:

– What is your overarching goal or purpose, and how do your programs support it?
– What are your key themes and messages, and how do they resonate with your audience?
– What do your stakeholders really care about?
– What action would you like to inspire?
– How do your current initiatives fit together? Are there any outliers?

2 – Align with business objectives, not existing initiatives.
Whether you are creating a framework for corporate marketing, internal communications, or sustainability, you should have a clear focus that is distinctly tied to business priorities. Not only does this strengthen your strategy, but it also helps secure leadership buy-in.

Resist the temptation to build a framework around your existing programs. Instead, create pillars that support and are material to your business and organize your initiatives accordingly. This can be a revealing process as you will find that some programs have a stronger business case than others, and reevaluation might be necessary to ensure all your efforts support your overarching purpose. Some of our clients have found that a handful of their programs and initiatives were created with a sense of urgency without the overarching goal in mind. A framework will give you a clear focus for evaluating programs that are introduced in the future.

3 – It’s not an org chart.
Similar to above, it doesn’t always make sense to organize your pillars and initiatives the same way you do internally. Organize your pillars by objective rather than by team. Structuring your framework around your departments could cause confusion for your external audience, as it may not always be the most intuitive way to think about your programs.

For example, we recently developed a sustainability framework for a client who has various education initiatives within government affairs as well as human resources. While the programs are housed in different departments, we united them beneath an “education” pillar for the external framework.

4 – Make it creative, yet clear.
Because a strategic framework is externally facing, it’s important to strike a balance between creativity and clarity. Your title, pillars, and supporting messaging should be engaging but easy to understand. Think about how you can leverage your framework to build out a compelling story or narrative, but make sure it’s straightforward enough to stand on its own.

5 – Make it aspirational.
A good strategic framework will act as a blueprint for achieving your organization’s purpose. Make it relevant, future-oriented, and most importantly, aspirational. This will act as the North Star to rally your stakeholders around your reason for being beyond profit.

A strategic framework is an aspirational blueprint that presents the interplay and cohesion between a company’s business strategy and its other auxiliary programs to its various stakeholders. As an organizational communications tool, it streamlines a company’s messaging, ensures programs are material, informs and inspires audiences, and helps chart the course towards meaningful growth. Ready to construct your strategic framework? Download our comprehensive guide, which walks you through the journey and sets you up to secure executive buy-in. To learn more, you can also contact us.