Strategy: Do we really need it?


Do we need strategy?  

by Andrew Price ,  Strategy expert and associate at the Professional Development Centre 

I’ve worked with several big organisations where strategy is seen as a nuisance and frankly a distraction from the day-to-day challenges of keeping things going.  Every year, or 3 or 5 years, the boardroom goes through a sort of convulsion and out pops a glossy document which is then “rolled out” across the business to be met with bewilderment or indifference.   But if strategy seems like a chore, or irrelevant to the day-to-day, it’s time for a rethink.   

Strategy is one of the most over-used but least understood words in business. Based on several decades of experience in management and consultancy, my guess is that most people, including Boards, think strategy is just a Very Big (and expensive) Plan.  It isn’t.  This misunderstanding of strategy means we do it badly.  Or not at all.  Strategy – real strategy – is essential.   But we desperately need to rethink the way we do it.  Here are a few clues for rethinking strategy: 

Strategy is not a document.  

Imagine that someone promised to cook you a lovely meal but then just gave you a recipe.  Or how would you feel if you were promised a trip to Paris but all you got was a postcard of the Eifel Tower?  A recipe is not a meal, and a postcard is not a holiday.  In the same way, a strategy document is not a strategy.  The typical glossy document may even be a hindrance to strategy because management teams are reluctant to change what is in it, even when the world has moved on. 

Strategy is not planning.  

This is a hard one for most managers to grasp, but planning and strategy making are very different, perhaps opposite, activities.  Planning is about breaking things down, dividing up responsibilities, plotting critical paths etc.  Strategy is about bringing everything together to see the whole picture.  Sure, strategy leads to plans, but you can’t do strategy with your planning head on.  Strategic thinking is a mindset. This mindset has to be cultivated.  It is open and curious, questioning its own assumptions and prejudices, comfortable with uncertainty and ready to risk mistakes.  

Strategy is not just for the boardroom or c-suite.  

If the first staff time most staff are involved is in the official strategy launch, I guarantee implementation will be tough or non-existent.  Strategy begins with careful listening; to staff, to stakeholders, to customers, to industry experts.  Only when the Board has a good grasp of what’s going on inside and outside the business can it distill it down into strategy.   

So what really is strategy?  

It is a set of creative, co-ordinated and sustainable actions, designed to overcome the critical challenges faced by the business in pursuit of its purpose:

  • Creative – making best use of the skills and resources within the business, maybe redeploying or repurposing them  

  • Co-ordinated – so that the whole business is pulling together and synergy is achieved 

  • Sustainable – strategy must be doable – not a fantasy wishlist 

  • Critical challenges  - these may be obstacles or opportunities 

  • Purpose – what the business wants to achieve.  Most businesses are fairly foggy about this, but unless you know what you want, above all, to achieve, your strategy will be unfocussed 

In crisis times, like the current pandemic, surely we haven’t time for strategy? Wrong.  

This is exactly when you need to maintain a grasp of what is most important, what opportunities and threats are coming your way and what you can do about them.  This is what good strategy gives you.   Strategically savvy businesses are always monitoring their strategy and are ready to make changes, but the current pandemic makes this even more important.  Two of the things businesses need to do are;

Embrace the “new normal”

If and when COVID-19 is under control, there will not be a complete return to the way things were.   Even without the virus there are a number of major issues – Brexit, the impact of protests against racism, environmental awareness – that are changing society.  Hoping it will all go away is not a viable position.  Instead, we must do the hard work of trying to see the opportunities and challenges this presents 

Get fit and flexible.  

The current buzzword is strategic agility.  How quickly can your business flex and change what it does and how it works?  Hierarchical working, silo mindsets and poor teamwork make organisations stiff and slow.   New opportunities are opening up and only the businesses that see them and can move quickly are likely to do well from the current crisis.

This blog is part of the Change Maker Blog series. The Change Maker programme is a series of blogs, podcasts and virtual learning sessions to help people and organisations to navigate through a time of unprecedented change. To find out how the Change Maker programme can help re-engage your teams, start the conversation with us or click here to find out more