'Our strategy is to have no strategy'
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
As we start Q4 in 2020 many leaders will be embarking on a period of planning and budgeting – a tough proposition in the fog of Covid 19.
It’s a task many would like to avoid this year.
I once worked with an unreconstructed entrepreneur who hated planning and was proud that his ‘strategy was to have no strategy’ – why constrain yourself with artificial limitations when you don’t have to?
Of course, he did have strategies, though they may have been accidental rather than considered. For example, he built his business on a commitment to talent. He hired the best young people and found management roles for them as the organisation grew. This worked until his talented managers became frustrated with his unwillingness to involve them in evolving the business as competition intensified.
Don’t be Afraid of Strategy
I’d encourage emergent leaders not to fear strategy as a cumbersome, limiting activity. Nor is it theoretical and elusive. Strategic thinking should be a practical and rigorous process - hard work for sure, but also fun and rewarding if you really care about your part of a business and want to see it improve and grow.
Many of the key stakeholders in an enterprise look to leaders for clear analysis – the ability to get to the root-causes of inefficiencies and make sense of opportunities, risks and uncertainties. They also look for clear statements of intent - ‘what we want to achieve, why we want to achieve these things and ignore other things.’ This is what constitutes a strategy - it is not a plan; it is a framework to guide decision-making and investment.
Think Deep to Act Fast
To get to this point of clarity successful strategists think through the fundamentals of the operations they control, they know how they make money and provide value and where their costs are. They know where their operation can flex and where it is rigid and they are able to create future scenarios to test and refine their intentions. With these insights the strategic leader is more agile – better able to react when the context changes. You can never know what the future will bring, but strategic thinking ensures you really understand your business and this loads the odds in your favour. Without a strategy you are just guessing.
One of the reasons why strategic thinking is hard is that it requires determination to constantly question the assumptions that underpin your business model. ‘Are we clear what these really are? Do they remain valid?’ This ability to take nothing for granted will be accompanied by a restless curiosity – the creative strategist will always be observing trends, monitoring feedback, properly evaluating projects and initiatives and talking to customers, colleagues and investors. Thus, they will combine detailed knowledge of the business and its operations with a profound interest in the big picture – they can zoom both in and out as they build strategy.
Strategy for Everyone
Thinking in this way is not just the responsibility of those at the top of the organisation. Teams at every level can benefit from efforts to create the headspace to think through the way they work and find ways to improve. Thinking like an outsider can be a great technique to bring fresh ideas into the team and ask hard questions about why things are done the way they are and whether this is the right way for the future?
If this all sounds superhuman, keep in mind that strategic thinking is the ultimate act of inclusion. No one has all the answers and so the successful strategist may be someone whose real skill is to bring together the people who can challenge the status quo, provide the insights to create clarity and frame a powerful statement of intent.
If you are a leader, at whatever level, and are switching roles from juggler to ring master, you may want to look at the work of Stephen Bungay, the author of The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results.
Think deep to act fast is his mantra.