A defining feature of sustained excellence in any enterprise is a good strategy — a vision and plan linked to the delivery of something of value, consistently. One of the big reasons many organizations fail to thrive is not just that they that have the wrong strategy, but that they don’t have one at all (but think they do).
Strategy is all about perception.
Whether you think you have one or not is partly perceptive. Whether you are delivering a strategy in practice or not is also a matter of perception. Why? Because strategy is what links what you build your organization for, what you drive it toward, and what you actually achieve. Lots of organizations achieve positive results by happenstance (being at the right place at the right time). That kind of luck can happen to anyone, but it hardly constitutes a strategy.
Also, statements of intent are great for creating the perception of strategy because one can always say they are working toward something in the abstract, but without a clear sense of how intentions are connected to actions and those actions connected to outcomes, there really isn’t a strategy.
Do you have a strategy?
The best example of this is in the entertaining and instructive illustrative book ‘I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t)‘, Howell J. Malham Jr literally illustrates the problems that beset conversations about strategy as it chronicles two characters (Larry and Gary) talking about the subject and busting the myths associated with what strategy is and is not. One exchange between the two goes like this:
Larry: “Hey Gary, I was working a strategy to put a cookie back in a cookie jar but I tripped and fell and the cookie flew into my mouth instead. Good strategy, huh?“
Gary: “That’s not a strategy. That’s a happy accident, Larry“
The entire book is like this. One misconception after another is clarified through one character using the term strategy to mean something other than what it really is. These misconceptions, misuses, and mistakes with the concept of strategy may be why it is so poorly done in practice.
Malham’s work is my favourite on strategy because it encapsulates so many of the real-world conversations I witness (and have been a part of) for years with colleagues and clients alike. Too much conversation on strategy is about things that are not really about strategy at all like wishes, needs, or opportunities.
This isn’t to suggest that all outcomes are planned or connected to a strategy, but the absence of a strategy means you’re operating at the whim of chance, circumstance, and opportunism. This is hardly the stuff of inspiration and isn’t sustainable. Strategy is about connecting purpose, plans, execution, and delivery. Malham defines a strategy as having the following properties:
1. It has an intended purpose;
2. There is a plan;
3. There is a sequence of actions (interdependent events);
4. It leads toward a distinct, measurable goal
When combined with evaluation, organizations build a narrative and understanding of not only whether a strategy leads toward a goal, but what actions make a difference (and to what degree), what aspects of a plan fit and didn’t fit, and what outcomes emerge from the efforts (including those that were unintended).
Words and action
One of the biggest problems with “capital ‘S’ Strategy” (the kind espoused in management science) is that it is filled with jargon and, ironically, contributes greatly to the very lack of strategic thinking that it seeks to inspire. It’s one of the reasons I like Malham’s book: it cuts through the jargon. I used to work with a senior leader who used all the language of strategy in talks, presentations, and writing but was wholly incapable or unwilling to commit to a strategic direction when it came to discussing plans and actions for their organization.
Furthermore, it is only marginally useful if you develop a strategy and then don’t bother to evaluate it to see what happened, how, and to what effect. Without the action tied to strategy, it is no better than a wish list and probably no more useful than a New Years Resolution.
Those plans and linking them to action is why design is such an important — and sadly, highly neglected — part of strategy development. Design is that process of shifting how we see problems, explore possibilities, and create pathways that lead to solutions. Design is not theoretical, it is practical and without design doing design thinking is impotent.
Two A’s of Strategy: Adaptation vs Arbitrary
The mistake for organizations working in zones of high complexity (which is increasingly most of those working with human services) is assuming that strategy needs to be locked in place and executed blindly to be effective. Strategy is developed in and for a context and if that situation changes, the strategy needs to change, too. This isn’t about throwing it out but adapting.
Adaptive strategy is a means of innovating responsibly, but can also be a trap if those adaptations need to be built on data and experience, not spurious conclusions. Arbitrary decisions is what often is at the root of bad (or no) strategy.
Roger Martin is one of the brightest minds on strategy and has called out what he sees as sloppy use of the term adaptive strategy as a stand-in for arbitrary decision-making going so far as to call it a ‘cop-out’. One of the biggest problems is that strategy is often not viewed in systems terms, as part of an interconnected set of plans, actions, and evaluations made simultaneously, not sequentially.
Good strategy is not a set of steps, but a set of cascading choices that influence the operations and outcomes simultaneously. Strategy is also about being active, not passive, about what it means to design and create an organization.
Grasping strategy for what it is, not what we imagine it to be, can be a key factor in shaping not only what you do, but how well you do it. Having the kind of conversations like those in Howell J. Malham’s book is a means to get things moving. Taking action on those things is another.