Strategy, not Stupidity

I’ve reached that point in my career where I am spending an increasing part of my time thinking strategically… or at least thinking about strategy. It’s one of those areas where I always thought there was some mystic art involved, but I am finding it’s more straightforward than that. If leadership is about making good decisions, then strategic leadership is about making good longer term decisions that can impact over a longer period of time and potentially across a broader range of areas.

My starting point is that we simply dont spend enough time thinking strategically. Supposedly 85% of leadership teams spend less than one hour per month on strategy, and 50% spend no time at all. One hour per month equates to less than 1% of monthly working hours, so we are arguably spending 99% of our time moving in a direction that may not have been properly considered. That’s not to say that we dont have enough strategy documents, but that’s not the same thing as having an agreed, cohesive and meaningful strategy.

Cutting and pasting strategy other organisation’s documents and passing them off as your own is largely pointless. Just like writing an essay at school, carefully considering how others’ work can enhance your own thinking is valuable; copying word for word is plagiarism.The power of strategic thinking is not the final strategy document itself but the discussions and often conflict that goes into developing the strategy. It’s this that provides the value in making sure that your strategic approach has undergone appropriate challenge and ultimately presents a shared vision that everyone buys into. It isn’t strategic thinking when you have a management team all with very different and often conflicting strategies. That’s stupidity, not strategy.

In a world of cloud computing, software as a service, artificial intelligence, big data and all things digital, the opportunities are endless – at least that’s what the salespeople will tell you. The trick therefore is deciding what not to do, or at least what to prioritise – accepting that not everything can be a priority. An ongoing frustration of mine is that we don’t make decisions on what not to do, or at least what to prioritise right now. The result is that everyone ends up trying to do much and delivering nothing – so you simply dont move forward.

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Michael Porter

A former Director set a new mobile strategy to go ‘all in’ with Windows phones. At the time it was a sound approach, reducing the complexity and cost of our mobile estate. One year on and Microsoft ceased production of the Lumia phones. It was the right decision at the time, but was unfortunately undone by the wider technology market. Nonetheless we had a strategy.

This example demonstrates that with rapidly evolving technology, it is incredibly difficult to create a strategy. But for me, that makes strategic discussion even more important. 5-10 year fixed strategies are now largely pointless, but a rolling 3 year plan, that is constantly reviewed and refreshed, coupled with a longer term vision, is essential.

Karl Weick talks about the need to replace strategic maps with compassess, and distinguishes between old school, analogue leaders and those emerging in the digital age: “Maps, by definition, could only help in known worlds — worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and can only get a general sense of direction.”