Sunday, May 22, 2016

Strategy: Mainline or Disruptive?

A few weeks ago Kevin Delaney wrote an article on strategy that Quartz posted[1].  His premise, as his title says, is that no one should have the word “strategy” in their job title.  He gave two reasons: (1) the gap between strategy and execution is already too wide; (2) giving strategy to one dis-empowers the others. Solution: Focus on execution and its improvement, and encourage everyone to think strategically.

This sounds curiously similar to the arguments about innovation: we need the incremental improvements in operations, and everyone should be doing it.  But it is precisely the routine aspect of this that is dead wrong.

Four points to consider: first, strategy needs to rise above the routine and chart a course to a new destination.  Doing things we’ve always done, but a bit better, won’t cut it for a strategy, nor work in a rapidly changing world.  I’m reminded of the Gartner strategist who said we are getting good at landing planes, but at the wrong airport[2].

Second, not everyone is a strategic thinker. Marcus Buckingham and the folks at Gallop taught us that we all bring different strengths to the job[3].  This is not about elitism; it’s about leveraging the different strengths we have.  The connecting the dots and seeing around the corners of strategic thinking, is not for everyone.  It’s for people who think that way.  Finding these thinkers in your midst, and listening to them, is a leadership mandate.

Third, strategy can’t be delegated; it must be led.  If the captain can’t articulate the destination, you need a new captain.  That doesn’t mean the captain doesn’t have to listen, that they are always right.  That’s also dead wrong.  But if strategy is not led from the top, the organization won’t get out the harbor.

Fourth, strategy needs to focus on the few.  Trying to include everyone’s idea is a recipe for failure.  The adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee is a case in point.  Nonprofit organizations, whose culture is to reach consensus, is another context to consider.  The “Big Umbrella”[4] approach lacks the focus to execute well—precisely one of Mr. Delaney’s critiques.

So is strategy a mainline activity, a trait and job for all; or is it something that disrupts the status quo and thinking-as-usual?  I’d put my bet on the latter.

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[1] Kevin J. Delaney, “No one should have the word ‘strategy’ in their job title,” Quartz, May 12, 2016
[2] Dave Aron, VP of Research, Gartner Group, CCitDG Conference, October 8, 2009
[3] Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths, January 29, 2001.  The authors note 34 themes from their broad-based research, of which “strategic” is one.  Buckingham would later say that expecting everyone to have the same strength is akin to expecting all members of an orchestra to play trombone.
[4] See the story of the “Big Umbrella” in my book project Letters to a Young Manager, here: