What Really Is Strategy – Part One

Strategy is a nom du jour being applied to most every action (or inaction) within an organization. From strategic human resources and strategic marketing, to strategy execution and strategy alignment, one cannot escape the ‘strategic’ implications of even going to lunch. Every department thinks of itself as a driver of the corporate strategy, yet like disruptive innovation a decade earlier, strategy is a diluted metaphor rather than deeply understood as a core concept.

Strategy had two pivotal awakenings in the last century. First in the way it was applied to winning wars, and the ensuing strategic war games. Second are the famous scenario planning models such as those of Royal Dutch Shell. Although both of these developments did bring strategy to the forefront of modern day business thought, the understanding and the deployment of strategic business thinking have remained static for most of the past few decades.

Most recently, from The Financial Times to the Harvard Business Review, there has been unprecedented research, analyses, and opinion, of companies that have failed, or are about to fail, because of an inability to recognize and respond to the rapidly changing global business scape. More often than not the root cause is blamed on a week or broken strategy.

In some cases this is certainly true. In many more instances there are other, less structural, underlying factors. Deeper insight can reveal that the strategy was sound, it was the execution that failed. Yet that misses the mark as well.

Strategy is often not articulated beyond the executive suite. Ask the line workers at most corporations what is their company’s strategic vision, and they become hard pressed to answer. At best, one may hear a recitation of the mission statement. Mission statements are not strategy. Mostly one would hear disparate answers, a simple indicator of a non-aligned organization.

Strategy execution and alignment are the cotter pins to successful strategy implementation, yet not if the execution and alignment do not go beyond the corporate leadership team. To truly be a strategic company, the front line, customer facing people have to embody the strategic mantra as forcefully as the C-suite. Leadership has to capture the hearts and minds of every person in the organization, and engage and align the people to make the strategic dream a purposeful destiny. In the absence of a clearly articulate strategy the organization pushes and pulls its way through each quarter, fighting the market, and itself.

There are clear implications for not having a strategy deeply embedded in a company’s psyche. Everything from operations and technology, to everyday processes and procedures, become hindrances. The organization becomes a means to a paycheck. Once this occurs, systems get hacked, as they lose credibility, new ideas stagnate, and leadership becomes isolated from the organization. And the inevitable occurs as the company begins its solid march to quarterly stagnation, and eventual failure.

Strategy isn’t a formula, or a plan. It is a way of life for an organization. The strategy becomes the lifeblood of an organization.

Getting the entire organization into one strategic state of being is the blinding focus of the leadership team. And it is more than an exercise in employee communications. It is a total commitment by the senior executive team to mutually engage their team around a common vision, create alignment deep within the organization, and deliver measurable results. Only then will sales, operations, systems, and people synchronize to get your organization where it needs to be.

For a strategy to be properly executed, an organization has to build bench strength at every level of the organization. For proper alignment to occur, the front line has to have the operational mindset and resources that relate with the job that needs to be done, a solid understanding of the external environment in which the organization competes, and most important, a context in which to make daily decisions.

For the front line to have this level of effectiveness, managers, directors, vice presidents, all the way to the CEO and COO, must have a shared vision of the future, and a clear path to get there. It requires an engaged leadership team, a deeply aligned organization, and the fortitude to deliver on the strategic promise.

Hence the overarching application of the word strategy to most every move and hiccup made by today’s modern organizations is a dangerous distortion. If your front line people do not understand what your company stands for today, why it exists in the marketplace, and where it is going next, then you are not a strategic organization.

Engine90: Why is your strategy your strategy?

Mike Rosmarin