Being strategic about strategy

My last strategy away day earlier this year was not different to any other ones I have been to, so the script was very familiar. Senior managers had ideas (the conceptual stuff) and intentions (plans and objectives) that they wanted to communicate to people and the expectation was that everybody would embrace them and get on with work. There were the typical workshop style activities that were supposed to help everyone digest the pyatiletka. Does this model of strategy work? From my experience and conversations with managers it turns out, not really.

Strategy is typically associated with the analytical and ‘hard’ stuff (plans, objectives, KPIs, incentives) often done by senior managers in huddled groups. This typically characterises the idea stage, then quickly followed by intention stage where some plans are drawn, then somehow (though typically through all staff meetings followed by some more staff meetings and workshops) make their way into implementation. The ‘soft’ bit of strategy – people, but by which we typically mean their consensus, clarity, and commitment – feature much later and much poorly. Yet at implementation stage the less tangible becomes very tangible. The concern then becomes: do people understand, do they appreciate, and are they willing to implement this strategy in such a way that it realises its anticipated benefits?

From my conversations with managers I noticed it is common to think sequentially and linearly with regard to strategy: develop – implement – outcome. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, perhaps we are blinded by power and position we hold, perhaps it is the overly scientific education we get in school, perhaps it is the binary and biased media, or perhaps we just became experts in recipe books (anyway, it’s hard to put my finger into it). Moving from the conceptual into the real world is first of all a challenge of people, not planning, visioning, measuring as many management books would like us to believe; the latter typically seems to assume that you are a great leader and your organisation is doing just fine. Looking at the literature that sheds advice on strategy implementation suggests that people are barely even mentioned there; some models just say culture or people without articulating the meaning and purpose of those. It seems that the notion of ‘plan well – implement kind of well – hope for the best’ is not rooted in how the world works, but how an economist tells me.

There seems to be a need for meta-strategy or being strategic about strategy. First, I need to challenge the assumption or perspective that implementation follows formulation. This of course works very well in lab environments where everything can be controlled except funding. In my experience I have never seen organisations with controlled environments. That’s not to say that managers do not experiment, I think they often do it without realising they do it (otherwise how can we explain so many failures), they just do think about it that way and not good at recording it as scientists do.

Where implementation seems to falter many say this is because of people, even the hard bit can be traced to people. More importantly how idea was generated in the first place and how intentions were expressed seem to impact implementation. In some sense implementation starts from the beginning.

Where managers thoughtfully considered how they should develop strategy or tried to get it right thoughtfully later in the game they were less likely to refer to challenges in succeeding with implementation. Ignoring realities further down the line (both in terms of time and structure) only seems to come back to haunt us as managers. The paradigms we hold – what makes a strategy and how it works (reductionist or holistic, linear or circular, etc etc) – can either limit or enrich our strategy. A focus on merely producing a strategy as a plan seems (very very) limiting, a focus on bringing others into the strategy can be far more enriching. Why do we choose a path that’s limiting I do not fully understand – maybe it’s the managerial recipe books.

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