Strategy as control

Developing strategies sometimes has an interesting quality of not really being about developing a clarity of action as action of control. Not long ago in an organisation I was doing some work for, the senior managers introduced a new procedure: it required the directors in its country offices to develop general formalised country strategies. The HQ provided them with a template, told to run strategy workshops and submit a strategy to the board to approve.

One of the architects of the template asked a country manager how was he able to operate without a formal strategy? This question implied that for a strategy to exist it has to be on a paper. His strategy was in his head and he probably could not even articulate it as it was tacit. Strangely (and maybe rightly) people expected to develop those strategies on paper were not enthused about it. I could read that on their faces (and their actions as they took their time to commit to it). I wondered why such reluctance… but the penny dropped when I reframed my question. Why was that strategy necessary in the first place, what was it really seeking to achieve and who really benefited from it?

The idea of a formalised strategy on the paper was driven from the top and it was for the top. These country managers did not need one. They knew their operations in and out, and managed them well enough. In some sense they had a strategy, though it was not formalised, structured or documented. It’s like they were driving their cars without a map, but they had a map in their head. Perhaps it was not detailed, but it seemed good enough to get by. Now they had to draw a map and somebody else would have to look at it and approve it like they knew the territory.

How often will those managers refer to those documents that simply reflected what they already knew and doing anyway? It did not really change much for the country managers, other than adding another paperwork, another box ticking. Indeed, the senior managers asked country managers to complete a series of other papers too. Seen in the larger context of paperwork it looks clearer why these ‘strategies’ were necessary: a control mechanism. It still eludes me what those strategies achieve in practice. It seems that sometime developing a formal strategy is used as a control mechanism. Like a contract written in paper, once you signed it you are expected to follow it. Somebody can wave it at you if you do not follow the letter.

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