The view of strategy as an intended plan is prevalent. But what drives us to develop strategies? It seems to me that there are at least five drivers for strategy which can be categorised as 5 Cs: controlling, competing, coping, creating and clarity seeking. They seem to be driven by different needs and intentions, though they are not mutually exclusive. Even where they overlap, they may compliment and/or conflict at the same time.
Strategy as controlling. One organisation I worked with, which has been around for decades, introduced a formal process and plan for strategy development for the first time. Managers were handed templates with minute details of schedules for strategy workshops and strategic plan document. There was no ambiguity in terms how to go about developing a strategy in the ambiguous world those managers worked in. Managers duly produced their strategies based on what they already knew but they did that for the executives, not themselves. It appeared that the executives needed a new control mechanism through which they could approve, monitor and call into question what managers were doing.
Strategy as competing. In business we often construe strategy as an intention to win and in order to win we have to compete. My strategy professor at Henley argued that strategy is about winning. Similarly, Lafley and Martin’s book title – Playing to Win – is in that vein. When I play board games with friends and family, it seems to help if I can work out how I am going to compete in order to win. But strategy is not always about winning, if winning means being on top/first or overcoming/subduing your opponent. Strategy can be about surviving – staying alive or staying in business. Just as the number of times I noticed how my 8 year old son won games without strategy as it know it.
Strategy as coping. Having a sense of not knowing or acting with unpredictable outcomes is rather unpleasant one, and may lead to anxiety. Hence developing strategy can be seen as a mechanism of coping with ambiguity and uncertainty, or demands and pressures from the powerful stakeholders. Developing strategy often results in a sense of certainty (even if false one) of what the team or organisation will be doing. In that sense, it becomes a way of coping with unknowns and unpredictable, or demonstrating to stakeholders that we have figured it out. We have a plan, therefore fear not for we’ll cope with what life and markets throw at us (until that actually happens).
Strategy as creating. Another way of thinking about strategy is as trailblazing, navigating, pathfinding. It seems that is more likely the case if we assume we are not in control and have not figured out the terrain. Particularly, in the context of evolving situations this way of thinking about strategy formation is less about predicting and more about continuously working out, sometimes in the moment. It is an ongoing process of creating a path by making sense of actors and actions, events and the environment. Sometimes we do this consciously, but often unconsciously. Improvising, rather than controlling, as we go along. In this case, we might be certain that we are not certain and limit our sense of being in control to our actions rather than circumstances.
Strategy as clarity seeking. Often as managers we feel we need to formulate strategies because that way we can structure our thinking and intentions, as well as communicate that to others. The process of developing strategies can be beneficial in so far as questioning what we take for granted and opening up to other perspectives through various tools and techniques. This probably gets closer to what Eisenhower referred to as “plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. In that sense, it is the process that matters rather than outcome. Just as Drucker observed about the Japanese way of decision making: the focus is more on the process rather than outcome.