Clive Rushton, October 2014
I’ve read 59 books in the last 12 months while studying for an MA in Leading Innovation and Change. Throw in a multitude of papers, articles and forum posts and my self- description of, “I read voraciously” seems about right.
Two ‘businessy’ things tainted my literary appetite, however: the plethora of recycled concepts and the confusion surrounding the key ones.
I am cynical about the recycling. In order to publish another book or to have another article published in prestigious journals authors simply rewrite the same ideas and advice from a slightly different angle. It’s understandable but I’m not sure it’s excusable. Publishing what is basically the same book or article under a different heading may be good business for the author but it surely is a slight on the intended audience who are treated to this regurgitated repetition. If they didn’t understand it the first time around are they stupid or was it badly explained?
Leadership and management; improvement, innovation and invention; creativity and change: each combination spawns article after article purporting to define and explain but all they do is obfuscate and confuse.
The confusion, of course, lends itself to the repetition. It’s in the consultant’s interest to maintain a sense of ignorance in their audience. Actually educating people releases them from the teacher’s grasp.
Undoubtedly the most confused pairing is planning and strategy. Strategy, particularly, has reached the dizzy heights of a ‘must use’ word; it appears everywhere and every time from everyone.
Here’s my definition of the two culprits: planning is about performance, strategy is about results. The two are irrevocably connected but they are not synonymous.
In one of my term papers I wrote, “Many authors cite The Economist’s, [“Nobody really knows what strategy is”], but then use thousands of words doing little more than unequivocally proving they are not the one to prove The Economist wrong!”
To understand strategy I had to first understand planning. My swim coaching background taught me a lot about planning. Athletes have to produce precise performances on a predetermined day under conditions over which they have little influence, with win-loss tolerances of around 0.02%. It’s not Six-Sigma precision but when human frailties, and idiosyncrasies and peculiarities are involved, compounded by the near-infinite complexities of water turbulence, the challenge is at least equal.
Sporting analogies sit well with businessmen but are seldom comfortable in academic settings. They are, however, entirely appropriate and eminently practical. Sport planning has to be comprehensive structured, logical and systematic, and in all those areas the quality has to be exceptional. It must describe and prescribe a process just like a business plan should, or a plan for world domination could.
The goal of a plan should be a particular level of performance. A swimmer may have a goal time of one minute forty-five seconds for 200 meters so the plan has to address the technical and physiological requirements of that speed and distance. But what if your opposition is developing a superior product? What if the opposing swimmers are capable of swimming faster than one minute forty-five? In that case three options are available: settle for a loss, change the plan, or disrupt the opposition: purpose, planning, strategy.
The first option is about purpose: not winning the swimming race yet achieving the goal time may be OK for a developing athlete but for one at the pinnacle of a career it is an unacceptable option. Move to option B: changing the plan. A correct decision here is pivotal; one which could make or break the whole season or define a career.
In the same way that a single, defining line of film script, or a piece of decisive action or dialogue in a novel changes everything, this binary ‘yes or no’ approach to option B tips the balance between success and failure. In a film or book this occurs at exactly the half-way point and seals the story-line for the remaining half of the story. Option B is the half-way point between accepting the loss and demanding the win.
Of course, it begs the question; if a faster performance is possible why was the swimmer settling for one minute forty-five in the first place? On the other hand, if the coach and swimmer assess their capabilities as limited to one minute forty-five then option C – disrupting the opposition – is the only one left.
Option C is strategy.
Strategy is about the result. On his best day our swimmer is capable of one minute forty-five seconds – that’s a performance – but the opposition is capable of faster and the opposition wins – that’s a result. To change the result we have to disrupt the performance of the opposition. We have to make the opposition underperform; we have to deliberately undermine them.
Strategy is most useful when the opposition has a better hand of cards than you do. Strategy is about manipulating the opposition into playing at a lower level than they are really capable of. Strategy is about ‘blindsiding’ the opposition, attacking them at their weakest point. Strategy is about tricking them into naive moves, premature launches of untested products, cutting off their source of supply. Lawrence Freedman says, “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.” 1
Strategy is a game, sometimes cut-throat, always serious. Strategy is a ploy or a maneuver, otherwise why not just use planning and create a superior performance?
A strategy has to be different to, or more than, a plan. Otherwise it’s a plan. A plan delineates the qualities, characteristics and requirements necessary to move from the current performance level to the goal performance level. Purpose is about the ‘why’; the basic components of a plan are the ‘whats’ and the ‘whens’ and the ‘wheres’. Strategy is about the ‘how’.
And this is where the confusion leads to business mistakes, disasters and catastrophes. Many authors transpose these adverbs and attribute strategy to the what and the when and the where. They prioritize the outcome over the process and become blinded by the shiny possibilities of their short-term thinking. They underestimate the importance of process, of systems, of the ‘connective tissue’ between cause and effect, and of the arrow of time; they ignore the reality of demand for continual nurturing of the organizational organism. Their strategy usurps their planning and they undermine their own systems and methods.
Goals do not have to differ for opposing strategies to be appropriate. A surgeon and a butcher both need to cut through muscle. The surgeon’s purpose is to access internal organs or bones, the butcher’s purpose is to separate sections of flesh for cooking. Both of them look for a clean cut with the least possible collateral damage. Same muscle structure; same tools; same cutting action but completely different strategies: the surgeon cuts with the grain of the muscle fibers, the butcher cuts across the fibers.
Some successful strategies are completely counter-intuitive. My wife and I possess a stubborn cooking pan which refuses to give up its grime and stickiness. My solution to ensure a clean pan – dirty it more often!
The more often the pan is dirtied, the more often it gets cleaned and the nearer it gets to ‘clean’. That’s strategy. The goal is to have a clean pan; the plan is to get it clean faster; the strategy is to get it dirtier more often. It isn’t a ‘business’ solution but it is a solution contrived to continue satisfactory business.
Successful organizations, businesses, stock market analysts, sports scientists and coaches accurately analyze the internal and external factors affecting their particular situation and strategize to control or favorably change one or both of them, producing a more efficient (external), more effective (internal) or more responsive (external-internal interaction) system. The long term organizational plan should increase performance but the short term strategy is often to undermine, attack or destroy the opposition.
Analysis comes with ever-increasing sophistication but generally boils down to SWOT. Many companies, however, restrict their examination to navel-gazing; they only analyze themselves. Visionary leaders, however, examine and understand the opposition. An athlete’s strategic competition model should obviously maximize their own strengths but it should also seek to negate their opponents’ strengths. Weaknesses should be circumvented in themselves and mercilessly attacked in their opponents; opportunities should be sought out and welcomed, yet limited, constrained or denied to your opponents; threats to oneself should be neutralized but threats to an opponent should be encouraged and supported.
Recognizing and acting appropriately on this analysis – displaying response-ability – are hallmarks of outstanding leadership. Planning for performance indicates involvement and good intentions, strategizing for results demands commitment and execution. It all depends on how much you demand the win.
- Freedman, L., 2013. Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press.