Strategy on the Morph

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In 1966 Time magazine published a cover article posing the question, “Is God Dead?”  Asked about the possibility, former President Eisenhower reportedly responded, “That’s funny. I was just talking with Him this morning.” Some of us are beginning to feel the same way about trendy assertions that strategy is dead.

You may have read one such in the Jan. 25 Wall Street Journal. “Strategy, as we knew it, is dead,” argued Walt Shill, who leads Accenture’s North American consulting practice. An article titled “Strategic Plans Lose Favor” goes on to quote him saying, “Corporate clients decided that increased flexibility and accelerated decision making are much more important than simply predicting the future.”

If you believe strategy consists of predicting the future, or making plans, please feel free to take a chair next to Mr. Shill in the front row of mourners. On your seat you’ll find a copy of Henry Mintzberg’s 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, which should completely disabuse you of any residual hope you may have held out for the corporate planning process.

Meanwhile, a few of us who didn’t get the sad news will be sitting around the roaring hearth, sipping wine and talking about not strategy’s death but its future. Or so we did last week, at an evening event in Manhattan under the auspices of the Association of Management Consulting Firms, sans hearth actually, not sans wine. The conclusion there was that strategy was going to need to be faster of foot, smarter about picking its shots, and in general more “adaptive,” to use my favorite new descriptor (which I of course cribbed from people smarter than myself, some of whom were there last week).

But it was not going to be dead. Darrell Rigby, a longtime partner at Bain & Co. and author of Winning in Turbulence, pointed out that we’ve gone through periods before when people said the world was moving so fast companies didn’t have the need for, or time to do strategy. Like in the late 1990s. Something like 90% of the high-tech outfits from back then who thought they could do without the big S are no more. Rigby, who has been surveying companies on their use of management tools since 1994, also reported that strategic planning has ranked No. 1 or 2 on the list every year since then. (Maybe they didn’t get the memo on the difference between planning and strategy, either, but it’s also true that “Have a strategy” isn’t by itself a choice on the survey.)

As moderator of the discussion, without wine glass, let me try to distill some of what I heard into a few potential calls to action. By way of context I’d note that Accenture’s Shill isn’t wrong about companies wanting increased flexibility and accelerated decision making. Part of what these experts are wrestling with was how to root both in strategy, or, looked at from the other direction, how to rethink strategy to make it quicker and more dexterous.

1. Consider distributing the right to make strategy more widely throughout your organization. Martin Reeves, head of the Boston Consulting Group’s Strategy Institute, had a wonderful phrase for what strategy will increasingly consist of: iterative empiricism. You learn something about a fast-changing market, reflect it in the actions you take, learn from how the market responds to that, boil that into your next steps, and so on. “But we’ve been saying that for years,” partisans of the emergent, or learn-from-doing school of strategy may complain. True, but nowadays the action on the front-lines is moving so fast that you probably have to entrust the people there with decisions that heretofore would have been sent back to the company H.Q., where the great strategic wisdom supposedly was stored.

2. Understand that one process does not fit all decisions. Uta Werner, in a past life a partner at Marakon, now head of strategy at Xerox, noted that some strategy calls are of a scale that they can be left with folks out there in the organization. Others are so big, long-term, and momentous in their potential implications, she observed, that top management has to be involved. Knowing which is which, and having that knowledge widespread throughout the company, is critical to making strategy “adaptive.” Such wisdom also does wonders for your flexibility.

3. When you go to apply them to problems or opportunities, resources—corporate money, talent—will need to move as fast as decision-making. Tom Stewart, chief marketing and knowledge officer for Booz & Co.—and a former editor of Harvard Business Review—has the banner inscription for this imperative: Fluidity. Don’t think hydraulics. Think rather of the relentless, ever-morphing villains of the Terminator movies, the cinematic series where James Cameron made his bones, you should pardon the expression, as a director. Cameron may have lost out in the Oscar race this week, but his earlier creation could provide an image of what adaptive strategy—comin’ at ya–will look like.

Walter Kiechel III

March 8, 2010

One Response to “Strategy on the Morph”

  1. Adrian says:

    Hi Walter,

    I have just finished your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. When reading this blog post the word “Adaptive” reminded me of a question I had when reading the book.

    On Page 321 of the Hardbound book, Coda, You said “As the consultants note in their yet unpublished white paper…”.

    Do you know if this paper has since been published?

    Adrian

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