Listening to the communication of children is so refreshing. Some how they seem to understand what each is saying – because they share and understand a simple vocabulary. Somehow this basic foundation of communication is eroded through the progression of adult life. Over my years I have amassed a repertoire of words in the English language I don’t like and therefore simply don’t use. There is one word that is bantered around so much that its meaning has taken on a life of its own; the word ‘Strategy’. Even as I execute each letter I could feel the tension mounting. At one point the essence of strategy, to me, was the holy grail of innovation. Today it is the confetti of organizational communication. It seems that everything has been elevated to the level of being strategic; otherwise it is in not really important. Michael Porter (Why Do Good Managers Set Bad Strategies?, 2006) said it best “Strategy is a word that gets used in so many ways with so many meanings that it can end up being meaningless”. He is right!
So what is strategy or being strategic? Don’t Google it, as there are more definitions than hours in a year! They range from (i) the bridging of the gap between policy and tactics, to (ii) “Strategy has no existence apart from the ends sought”. However, my all time favorite is “Strategy is a broad, ambiguous topic. We must come to our own understanding, definition and meaning”.
For me, strategy is perspective, a way of looking internally and externally from the organization which gels, from all the possibilities, a direction and focus that guides an organization’s actions through tactical steps.
As a part of my Organization Life-Transformation Portfolio, strategic planning is something I have taught with great zeal. I relish the moment when I can move teams from the mundane to the incredible, my only requirement; a group of free-unencumbered thinkers. Through the exercise, teams are taught to fixate on creating ‘The WOW Factor’. This is an organizational unlimited unencumbered vision – the end. Sadly, however, when push comes to shove, strategic thinking flies out of the windows as the pressure to make budget or hit the quarterly numbers takes over.
Having a strategy or a strategic plan is not a static entity but more a living a breathing organism that is affected by and effects its environment. A strategy is impacted by and responds to environment, political, informational, social, technological, economic and legal pressures. Any ‘strategic planning’ that fails to embrace and include these elements represents an exercise in futility.
Recently I was engaged to lead a team through a strategic planning process. When I questioned the leader what was his expected outcome – I got the “deer in the headlights” look. To this executive, the activity seems so relevant that it was worth any price. The only problem – he had no idea what was to be the outcome. Although not part of the curriculum, he was lead to the vision ‘to transform the organization from ordinary to extraordinary (the wow factor) to such and extent that their landscape is indelibly altered.
Ultimately the first step in change is having a vision of what the organization will look like at some future point in time. If the view begins with the current organization in some form, then strategy may not be the tool of transformation but rather a tactical approach to change. Organizational strategic change seeks to create a new market space that makes current competition dynamics irrelevant. Instead of trying to ‘out-compete’ the current market dynamics a new basis of success; value innovation, changes the market place.
To be strategic is to be innovative in vision, thought and execution. Instead most organizations continue to be the breeding grounds for management communism which only serves to suppress any innovation. Each time I am faced with organizations seeking a strategic solution amidst their communistic culture the voice of a young Bristolian man, who explained how to remove an automotive headlamp, comes to mind... Hei’ei’ wei a Hamma! (Hit it with a hammer!). For these firms the innovation of a sledge hammer bears the finesse of their ‘strategic’ solution!