BooksLeadershipPeopleJuly 31, 20130Why We Hate Strategy

We tend to think strategy is boring, complicated, impractical, unnecessary. What if it's actually useful?

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. 

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