Strategy is the first and most important responsibility of business leaders. But although it’s a big deal in most companies of any size, it’s a major weakness in many of them and they get less from it than they think.
Research by McKinsey & Co. has shown executives to be largely dissatisfied with what strategy does for them. Many prominent academics who’ve spent lifetimes in the study of strategy-making are critical of how it happens and uncertain about its impact. Numerous studies report on the gap between companies’ intended strategies and their actual results. Many managers ask, “Does strategy matter?”
According to regular surveys of management tools by Bain & Company, another global management consultancy, strategic planning did not rank among the top 10 tools as recently as 1993. In 2000 and 2006, it was No. 1 in both usage and satisfaction—perhaps not surprisingly, as this was a period marked by the bursting of the tech bubble, extraordinary uncertainty and change, and hyper-competition.
But then in 2008 and 2010, strategic planning was displaced by, of all things, benchmarking. So at the height of the world’s worst financial crisis in 50 years, when sales, profits, and growth were all being hammered and competition in every sector was exploding, firms apparently thought it more important to watch each other than think about their future.
For all the attention strategy gets, there remains a lot of disagreement about what it is and how to make it. Neither have decades of academic research and theorizing, coupled with the real-world experience of any number of executives and consultants, added much to what we know about strategy or made managers more confident.
Will we see important advances anytime soon? Not likely. For some time—decades, in fact—the quest for new knowledge about strategy has yielded diminishing returns. So this critical subject, with innovation at its very core and so critical in driving innovation, will itself see little new thinking.
I expect a lot of people with an interest in strategy to take issue with this view. They’ll point to many past instances of similar predictions being overturned by advances in knowledge, by new technologies, and so on. But perhaps they should reflect on this challenge:
Name one major idea about strategy that we did not know about 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. Just one.
I’d be interested to hear the answer.
CONFUSION IN THE C-SUITE
There are numerous schools of thought about strategy, and a plethora of concepts, models, frameworks, checklists and other tools, all with their own champions and fans. But where is the “best practice”—a much-used management term—in this “body of knowledge”?
Answer: there isn’t one.
Most executives have attended management courses, read many books and articles on the subject and one way or another been involved with strategy for many years. Yet they lack a point of view about how to deal with strategy.
They’re somewhat familiar with the lingo, and may even be enthusiastic cheerleaders for this or that catchphrase. But question them, and it’s evident that they’re unsure about what various concepts mean and how to use them.
The result is that even close-knit management teams are divided about the best way “to do it.” They lack conviction about one point of view or another, and never commit to any process. So they keep flailing about and searching for a silver bullet that’ll deliver the results they want, and they chop and change on a whim.
It’s impossible to know all the consequences. But you can be sure that firms playing these games never do as well as they might. There’s always a gap between their potential and their performance.
HOW UNCERTAINTY BECOMES THE ENEMY OF STRATEGY
Strategy is, in essence, about the management of dilemmas. There’s an incessant barrage of these, and new ones arise continually. But strategists need to pay particular attention to four of them—all of which they ironically create for themselves.
First, is the question: What is the purpose of a company? Why does it exist? What should it achieve? Whose interests should it serve—and whose come first?
The answer used to be, to make a profit for investors. For only when that happens is anything else possible. But in recent years things have become more complicated. Firms are now expected to think beyond the bottom line to the triple bottom line—to concern themselves not just with profit, but also with people and the planet. To satisfy an array of stakeholders affected by their presence. “Sustainability” is the in word.
This is by no means a new idea but it’s one that’s gaining popularity. And it goes beyond mere altruism.
Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter, who for almost his entire career has said that the measure of strategy is superior financial returns, has recently been arguing that companies would improve their competitiveness by creating value not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders (the theme of my 2002 book, Competing Through Value Management.) That while setting out to alleviate poverty, for example, they might find opportunities to sell more products or services and produce superior profits. Other commentators are jumping on the same bandwagon.
But the balancing act is not easy—as companies in virtually every sector are showing. And it will get harder as stakeholders become more vociferous and more empowered by social media, and as politicians and regulators try to appease them.
Most CEOs are hesitant about publicly confessing to be focused first and foremost on profit. But watch them when times are tough and sales and margins take a hit. Without so much as a blink, they shove their virtuous intentions aside, become obsessed by the numbers and do whatever it takes to get things back on track. Their own wealth and survival hinge on satisfying their investors, so that’s what they focus on—if necessary at the expense of jobs, training and development, innovation, and social initiatives.
When the purpose of a business is undecided, every other decision is compromised. Many bad decisions will follow.
Second, is the presence of conflicting views about the causes of corporate success and failure. Do companies become great through focus or diversification? Should they think local or act global? Should they make or buy what they sell? Are there ideal business models for particular industries? Is the “first-mover” advantage a reality or should you be a fast follower? What’s the role of luck? Does leadership matter? And so on.
The answer to all these questions is, “It depends.” But that’s not an answer that makes executives sleep easier. So they keep searching, keep changing their minds, and keep blocking their own progress.
The causes of business success are many and varied, and they change from time to time. But if strategy is a point of view about where and how to compete, business leaders need to think through the “why” that underpins these decisions.
This leads to the third issue: which strategy concepts or tools to use. Should you begin with a review of your vision and mission, do a SWOT analysis, or a “five forces” exercise, or try to define your core competence? Can you disrupt your industry? What about exploring “blue oceans?” How important is agility, and how might you achieve it? Will a balanced scorecard help you implement your strategy?
As with the second issue, this leads to endless questioning, second-guessing, and dysfunctionality. A stream of self-inflicted upheavals keeps people off balance. And while the wheel is being reinvented the world moves on.
Fourth, is the question: which consultant to use. In more than 25 years as a consultant, I’ve never been the first one to facilitate a strategy session for any company. Others have always been there before me. Each arrived with their own process and language, their own pet ideas, and their own style. So each intervention was, in effect, a new beginning. Then I arrive, do my thing and move on too. Next year … another stab by someone else.
This may be entertaining, and management teams may enjoy the variety, but it definitely isn’t smart. In fact, it’s ridiculous.
For one thing, all consultants are not equal. Some do have the experience, knowledge and skill to make a real difference. Many others are hot on buzzwords, but have little practical understanding of how business works. And then there are those who are stuck on a particular theory or approach—and, as the adage says, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The executives who hire them admit that, “Ketso went down well.” “Dave was so-so” Or, “Meg was disappointing.” But ask them exactly what they mean, and their answers are vague. Yet that doesn’t deter them from starting from scratch yet again—and again—with another stranger and another unfamiliar approach.
Of course, there’s much more. But these dilemmas are real performance-killers. Fortunately, they don’t have to be.
STRATEGY MASTERY REQUIRES BOTH CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
Running a business well requires both continuity and change. Strategy also needs this balance. It takes practice to master a particular way of designing and driving strategy, entrench the processes that flow from it and build the capabilities to support it. There’s no short cut.
Companies should obviously keep abreast of new management thinking, and adopt tools and techniques that will improve performance. A new consultant may well bring a breath of fresh air to a strategy conversation. But these are serious matters, and to be careless—or reckless—about them is an astonishing breach of sound practice and good governance.
It’s easier to sow confusion in an organization than to curb it. To continually replace one set of management ideas with another is to court trouble. Companies might strike it lucky from time to time with a slant on strategy that really does make a difference, but chances are much greater that they’ll do long-lasting hurt to themselves. By shifting goalposts, processes, tools, and resources, they create uncertainty, disrupt programmes and activities, and stir up even more cynicism and distrust than already exists.
But that’s not the only downside. Because they never stick with one approach to strategy—or one strategy—for long enough, they never become as good as they should be at what they do. They never develop a sound “way we do things around here.” Instead of becoming better strategists and relentlessly honing their strategy, they scramble after new approaches, struggle to apply them, and dump them prematurely.
This is a shaky foundation on which to build any new initiative or grow a business over time. And given that firms are playing for increasingly high stakes, in increasingly tough circumstances, it should surely be avoided.
Running any company is hard work. So it makes no sense to undermine strategy with a string of theories and dodgy experiments, and a constant quest for glitzier answers.
Managers will always face more dilemmas than they can easily cope with. But to add to them is a sure way to become uncompetitive and unprofitable. Until they acknowledge these five dilemmas and tackle them head on, they will never get as much from strategy as they should do. It will continue to be a matter they know they should know about, but never quite grasp; one that gives rise to buzzwords and bullshit, but whose impact on results is questionable.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying these issues and thinking about them. As a consultant to many large organisations, I’ve had a front-row seat at their strategy deliberations for more than 25 years. And I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
Here are some lessons:
- The business of business is profit. But profit is a product of value created for many stakeholders.
- There is no magical strategy process or theory. Everything we need to know has been known for decades. Stop searching!
- Business success is about making a difference for the “right” customers.
- Value up, costs down has to be the mantra in every company. It requires the input of every employee.
- Every company is a prisoner of its context, and every industry has its own “rules of the game.” So while innovation is critical, and “thinking out of the box” is an attractive notion, most firms could become more competitive by just fixing their basics.
- Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, logic and hard choices, and largely a social process. Job #1 is to take your people with you.
- Communication is the ultimate driver of business performance.
- Simpler is better.
- The time to start executing a strategy is when it’s created.
- By breaking all work down into 30-day chunks, and assigning them to specific people, you put pressure into the system, learn fast what’s working and what’s not and see who’s performing and who’s not.
Study and repeat. Again. And again. The more you practice, the luckier you’ll get!
(A version of this article first appeared in Directorship, the journal of the South African Institute of Directors, in January 2013)