Do Strategic Themes Add Value in Strategy Mapping?

Many organizations use strategic themes on their strategy map.  Strategic themes can help organize, or group, related strategic objectives that work together to deliver a specific, valuable business result. Strategic themes can help simplify the communication of the strategy map to stakeholders by providing a concise bridge between the mission and vision and the details of the strategy map (i.e. the strategic objectives). Examples of strategic themes include:

Service/Operational Excellence

Clinical Leadership

Innovation in Service Delivery

Product Development Leadership

Build a Safety Culture

Focus on Continuous Improvement and Knowledge Generation, etc.

Strategic themes are very specific to the company, its ultimate business objectives and goals, and its business strategy. One approach to building themes into a strategy map is to define the 3 – 5 strategic themes that are critical to mission and vision achievement BEFORE creating the strategy map. Once the themes have been defined, the next step is to define and organize strategic objectives on the strategy map in relation to each strategic theme. Many organizations taking this approach will create “theme teams” to complete this activity. Some organizations will even create “mini” strategy maps for each strategic theme, displaying only the relevant strategic objectives and cause and effect arrows on each mini strategy map. Organizations may then assign the management of each strategic theme, and the associated strategic objectives, to specific individuals in the organization using these “mini” strategy maps. It is important to be aware of the potential pitfalls associated with introducing strategic themes into the strategy mapping and strategy implementation process:

Be sure that by starting with strategic themes you are not placing limits on the identification of strategic objectives In many instances, greater insight is achieved, and a better set of strategic objectives is created, when strategy mapping is done in an “unfiltered” way using all of the usual information inputs (i.e. SWOT Analysis, environmental scan information, stakeholder needs and expectations information, etc.). Being able to consider the broad variety of inputs that support an integrated value-creating business strategy without theme constraints often facilitates the creation of critical strategic objectives that do not fit specifically under one strategic theme or another.

Strategic themes may create unnecessary complexity for stakeholders Strategic themes add a layer of non-actionable information to the strategy map that may actually act as a distraction for stakeholders and employees. Since the focus of the strategy map is to highlight the vital few, value-creating strategic objectives, written in operational terms, many organizations opt to keep it simple and not add extraneous information, such as themes, to their strategy map.   

Managing by strategic theme may perpetuate a “siloed” approach to business thinking and operations Strategic objectives are ideally cross-functional in nature and cause and effect relationships exist across an organization’s entire strategy map. The goal in strategy implementation and management is to leverage the strategy map and get the organization working together cross-departmentally on, and thinking more broadly about, the paths to mission and vision achievement. While asking a sub-team to manage a “mini” strategy map, focused on a specific theme area, may ensure the successful achievement of the strategic theme, it may also result in sub-optimizing the achievement of other strategic theme areas and/or the entire business strategy as a whole.    

Strategic objectives may contribute to more than one strategic theme, making management of these strategic objectives confusing While the simplicity of the idea of identifying a specific set of strategic objectives for each strategic theme is attractive, reality is a bit messier. That is, strategic objectives rarely relate to just one strategic theme. This is particularly true for the strategic objectives in the organizational capabilities perspective – the foundational objectives that directly support numerous strategic objectives (and strategic themes). Using the example of a foundational strategic objective such as “Build a High Performance Culture”, it is easy to see it contributing to many of our sample strategic themes: Service/Operational Excellence, Clinical Leadership, Innovation in Service Delivery, Product Development Leadership, Build a Safety Culture, Focus on Continuous Improvement and Knowledge Generation, etc. The practical result would be that this one strategic objective, “Build a High Performance Culture”, could appear on several “mini” strategy maps, making management of this strategic objective confusing.   

Despite these concerns, many organizations like using strategic themes to simplify the communication of areas of strategic emphasis to those stakeholders not participating in strategy implementation and to other audiences who are concerned with the “what” of the business strategy rather than the “how”. The best advice when defining strategic themes for these purposes is to first create the strategy map and strategic objectives and then identify the three to five strategic themes that arise naturally from the strategy map. This can be done simply by looking at the strategy map and grouping together strategic objectives that seem to relate to the same or similar topic. Many organizations try to ensure that there is at least one strategic theme for each strategy map perspective: an organizational capabilities theme, an internal process theme, a customer or stakeholder theme, and a financial/resource management theme. Additional strategic themes may become apparent as you look more closely at your strategy map. It is up to each organization whether they wish to introduce strategic themes to the strategy map they use to implement and manage strategy. Many organizations choose to include them so that employees see this new layer of information and understand how the themes and strategic objectives align with each other. Other organizations believe that the focus for those involved with strategy implementation and management should be on the action-oriented strategic objectives on the strategy map alone. I’ll be honest – this is my preference. If you feel strongly that you want to add themes to your strategy map, here is an example where themes have been layered in after the fact and cause and effect linkages are permitted between themes.

Download Sample Hospital Strategy Map (web)

Essentially, each organization must make its own choice regarding the use of strategic themes based on its assessment of information needs and the unique culture of their organization.


  1. Tim Schanne
    Oct 14, 2010

    Sandy, I appreciate your approach to the question around themes. Specifically your preference for action oriented objectives.
    I will say for some organizations who use themes, the benefit you mentioned around simplifying the strategy for those not participating gets amplified when the number of action oriented objectives is high.
    But even if the number of objectives are limited to the critical few and in spite of the real risks posed by using themes you mention, do you have any thoughts on ways to an organization can use themes to their advantage if they’re determined to use them? Perhaps in areas of initiative prioritization, scorecard reviews, etc…

  2. Sandy Richardson
    Oct 18, 2010

    Hi Tim – thank you for your comments. I think that if organizations are determined to use themes they must realize that they are adding organizing categories that can assist in communications but add little value from a strategy execution perspective.
    If they are trying to streamline a busy strategy map, I would encourage them to really focus on identifying the strategic objectives that are critical to achieving their misison & vision first.
    A weighted strategy map, where the strategic objectives (SO’S) have been weighted relative to each other, is the best way to assist with focused intiative prioritization – fewer initiatives will align with specific SO’s than a theme, making initiative prioritization much clearer.
    With regard to scorecard reviews, BSC indicators should be derived from specific SO’s based on clear SO definitions – themes are too big and generalized to be of much help here. Improvement in indicator performance will indicate SO progress which will, in turn, indicate progress for the overarching strategic theme (if used).
    My problem is that, by design, themes are big categories that don’t clearly drive specific action – though we might be tempted to believe so. SO’s, on the other hand, are designed to drive action. With strategy execution challeneges being a common issue in businesses today, I have to wonder why organizations would want to confuse/complicate things for employees with more non-actionable information.
    In my experience, employees “get” the strategy map if it tells a coherent story. They don’t need the themes and they appreciate working directly with strategic objectives that help them see how they can put the strategy into action!

  3. Peter Shaw
    Oct 18, 2010

    Strategic themes will tend to take on a life of their own and live on after their usefulness. They also tend to take on too much of an internal focus leaving the company exposed to external factors not effectively addressed in the strategy process.
    I would only use them after the fact when communicsting with employees so that the message has a better change of being retained.

  4. Sandy Richardson
    Oct 18, 2010

    Hi Pete:
    You have highlighted another really critical issue when using strategic themes. Thank you!

  5. Nadeem Kureshi
    May 11, 2011

    Sandy, Hi.
    We are working on balanced scorecard for a large public sector organization with a considerable diversity of roles in SBUs; here in Pakistan.
    Diversity in SBUs actually means there are hardly any “true” themes which will work for all SBUs; in your words, ‘the value for strategy execution is even less’. However, since Theme Maps seem to be a truism in managing balanced scorecard systems, we tried to make best possible themes. A fall out of this is that the Theme Maps we are trying to make have very poor cause-and-effect linkage across perspectives.
    An alternate we tried is to make maps by “Groups of SBUs” rather than themes. This seems to work better than Theme Maps but still have the linkage problem.
    My suggestion to your readers, who are working for organizations with a fair degree of role diversity of organizational complexity: “stay away from theme maps and live with the corporate map only”.

  6. Sandy Richardson
    May 11, 2011

    Hi Nadeem – great advice from a real life experience/example. Thank you very much for sharing! Warm regards, Sandy

  7. Samdarshi Rana
    Jul 25, 2012

    Gracias for stimulating me to go do my own my own legwork.
    Yours was way more detailed than mine.

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  9. Amina
    Aug 15, 2017

    Brilliant comment Nadeem, thanks for sharing