The Birth of a Strategy at DAI

Cindy Limoges,
Chief Transformation Officer

The last decade has been kind to Bethesda-based DAI. In a short time, our company, which implements international development projects in some 60 countries, has experienced an impressive growth and has substantially raised our profile in the industry.

DAI works to improve governance, infrastructure, agriculture, business, health care, the environment, and other areas vital to the progress of developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development has historically provided the bulk of the firm’s revenue. In the past few years, the agency has been heavily focused on rebuilding Afghanistan. That’s where DAI and our development experts come in. We have rapidly become the number-one firm working in the country on various stability, governance, agriculture, and economic development projects.

Such fast growth comes with its own issues. And, as we have
begun to realize, the challenge we now face is the need to expand and diversify our client base.

With the help of Root Learning, we took the first step: defining our current reality. The Root team helped us think clearly about our marketplace and our position in it. Part of this process included an assessment of potential game-changers on the horizon, such as a reduction in foreign aid caused by the worldwide financial crisis and a major shift in how development work gets funded.

The next step of the process was to develop a compelling plan for the future, followed by aligning priorities to reach that future. It was clear that we needed a strategy to translate the excellence of our work for USAID into a broader market presence.

In the past, the firm had created other strategies that looked great on paper but were challenging to execute. We realized we needed to focus not only on creating a strategy, but also on alignment, engagement, and measurement.

“The crucial difference between this strategy and those of years past is that strategy used to be approached as homework. Once they were finished and studied, they all turned into dusty documents,” said DAI’s Dan Hogan, Vice President of Business Development. “Kudos to management for getting us here. We are grounded and able to determine what needs to change about us to move forward.”

For the next few months, we worked to establish a vision, a concept of what it means to be a global development company. Although we already had a client base including the U.K. Department for International Development, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and others, DAI had perhaps been pigeon- holed as a project implementer for USAID. We wanted to offer our diverse services to an expanded, more locally driven client base from offices around the world, proactively selling and positioning solutions to new buyers in different ways.

Our leadership and Board of Directors were involved in the process from the start. Eventually, we engaged more than 1,000 employees across the world in two Learning Map® modules: one on the marketplace and one on strategy.

For each module, we held a rollout in Bethesda, where many of our employees are based. Each employee was invited to a live session, going through the marketplace module first and then the strategy module. This was later extended to include video conferences with the international offices and training sessions with employees who regularly travel to project sites and corporate offices to serve as facilitators and share the modules there.

The modules got people engaged in how the new strategy will meet the challenges to come. They brought to life the story of the marketplace and DAI’s strategy.

“The hardest thing to do, both for an organization and an individual, is to look in the mirror and determine what we need to change about ourselves,” said DAI’s Jim Winkler, Chief of Party, Vietnam. “And we are doing just that. Two key elements I look for in a strategy are inspiration and aspiration. The strategy should leave you inspired, and aspiring to the very clear view of where we are headed. This strategy does both.”

As Chief Transformation Officer, Cindy Limoges is charge of managing DAI’s efforts in implementing its new five-year strategic plan.

Jean Gilson leads Strategy and Marketing at DAI, and has over 25 years of experience in the economic development field.