Why We Hate Strategy
I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me. In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day. And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.
But I digress. Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy. In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers. Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.” It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.
I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:
5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.” It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase. For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.” In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.
4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring. Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company? I bet you have. Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah. And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year. Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.
3) Mind-numbing language. As above. Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff. Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.
2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you. See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few. Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why. Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?
And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):
1) They don’t see the connection to real life. Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it. Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.
It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this. And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there. And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.
That doesn’t sound so boring. That actually sounds reasonable and very useful. Let’s do that.