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How your strategy can blind your company

Mar 14, 2008 Business Daily, Strategy

“Strategies are to organisations what blinders are to horses: they keep them going in a straight line, but impede the use of peripheral vision. By focusing effort and directing the attention of each part within the integrated whole, the organisation runs the risk being unable to change its strategy when it has to. Setting oneself on a predetermined course in unknown waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg.”

Henry Mintzberg, in Strategy Bites Back (2005)

Many Kenyan organisations seem to view strategies as straitjackets – you put them on and then don’t take them off for the next five years. In other words, a good strategy is something that keeps the organisation ‘on mission’ – on a predetermined path.

This is dangerous stuff, as Professor Henry Mintzberg, renowned strategy contrarian, points out above. I have come across many, many organisations that point to the ‘strategic plan’ as their Bible. The plan itself is usually a thickly bound document densely populated with graphs and numbers, containing enormous detail about action plans, timelines, responsibilities and milestones, running several years into an imaginary future.

The fact that we rely on these things is evidence that we have misunderstood the very nature of strategy. Strategy is not strategic planning; it is best thought of as a consistent pattern of ideas and actions. The consistency lies in the philosophy and supporting initiatives – not in having a rigid view of what will happen, and what must be done. Strategy is not an extension of budgeting.

Consider Kenya’s recent holiday in hell after the disputed December polls. Which organisation had factored in the enormous disruption to supply chains, team spirit and customer numbers that has just occurred? Whose plans, charts and budgets had seen that coming? Every organisation I know was preparing for a record year and its leaders were rubbing their hands in glee. They are now back at the drawing board, slashing budgets and reassessing sales.

Strategy is a point of view, a set of beliefs. It manifests itself in a unique position taken by an organisation, vis a vis its customers and competitors. Strategy is a statement of what the company stands for, not what its plans are. Of course, planning is important – it is a disciplined way of turning thought into deed. But planning alone is not strategy. Strategy is a far more thoughtful and insightful process than that: it requires reflection and contemplation. It also requires plenty of luck. Creative thought, deep insight, good fortune, single-minded action – that is not the stuff of planning. A great strategy takes much painstaking thought to devise – but is finally written on a page.

Strategies are lived, not planned. So if you are a strategic leader, get your organisation’s attention off the plan and onto the strategy. What’s your unique offering and position in the market? What’s your psychological contract with your employees and customers? What do you stand for? Which battles must you never lose? Those are the primal questions of strategy. If you can answer them well, and consistently demonstrate those answers to people inside and outside the corporation over a period of time, then you have a strategy. Otherwise, icebergs await.

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