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30 October 2012

Crafting Strategy 25 years on

It’s 1987 and you are in a strategy meeting in a large corporation. Someone has faxed you a copy of an influential article by Canadian management academic Henry Mintzberg.

His article has challenged the idea of rational deep thinking, of McKinsey Models and Bain business plans. Craftmanship, he argues, is the right way to grow a business.

A strategy is a plan; a guide. It requires that you have a sense of where you want to go and where you are coming from. The analysts in your firm have been investigating the state of the market, your competition and even talking to suppliers about opportunities and ideas they have. Surely you can’t abandon this research, this analysis, the insights provided by the consultants and your executive team?

Look for the patterns! Look at what has gone before! Grow your business from the roots of your experience! The craftsman (or the gardener in a more modern interpretation, Appelo 2011) learn their trade both through observing others and through experience. Developing the organisation is rooted in a deep understanding of the rhythms and flows of the organisation, and of an intimate understanding of the customer.

Good decisions are made close to where the work happens; ideally by the frontline workforce.

Fast forward 25 years and things are pretty much the way you left them. U2 and the Beastie Boys have come and gone, but many organisations are still playing the Strategic Planning game ignoring the warnings that Henry shared decades before.

Top down Strategic planning doesn’t work and yet it persists. As a method, it does not sufficiently listen to the staff and incorporate their ideas of what needs to be done and so execution to the plan is lacklustre and distracted.

Additionally the lack of integration with frontline insights means that the special circumstances of your business are ignored. Instead a commoditized, off the shelf strategy is deployed. Your business joins the race to the bottom of the market in a series of cost saving, margin snatching plays. Of course the plan also fails to acknowledge, let alone keep up with the dynamism of the market.

But what about all those case studies of leaders declaring a bold plan and the company following through on it? Well, yes, it has happened. But more often companies make their way through life with poor strategies or even none beyond the signed off piece of paper in the board room.

By the way - just how does a strategy learn from the experience of even successful implementation? There we are again; Without feedback from the front line we are destined to repeat the strategies of the past.

In 1987 Henry might have had a hard time convincing people of these facts, but we live in the broadband age. We have no excuse not to know better when all that information is at our fingertips (albeit often pay-walled.) And of course the stellar successes called out in magazine articles and keynote speeches have mostly worked to a strategy that was created in retrospect.

Strategists cost a lot of money, but when their work is assessed based on facts they are found to be, for the most part, modern day charlatans selling snake-oil to the desperate and scared.

What might modern strategists look like?

A journalist springs to mind; someone who investigates and observes what the collective of the organisation is doing, and shares their observations by publishing to the community. Strategies are a plan, as executed by the collective workforce; analysts and operators alike. What people do is the strategy. It’s much like culture in that way; you don’t decree it, you can only hope to influence it with leadership.

Coaches are another metaphor; someone who stands beside the team and watches from off-field, offering feedback and advice. Coaches can watch the organisation in the context of the wider environment and share perspectives and insight from a different, higher plane.

What are you doing? How is your strategy being managed?

(thanks Pete for the pointer to the article)