The overdue evolution of strategic thinking
Twenty-six years ago, Eddie Obeng wrote a book about project management that really should be read more widely, because I don’t think it’s ever been more relevant.
The book was called: “All Change! The Project Leader's Secret Handbook”, and in it, Obeng described four distinct types of project, using the classic two-by-two format and these criteria on the axes: do you know what the end result looks like, and do you know the process to get you there.
Anyone like me, who was trained in formal project management, will look at those criteria in horror: surely you should know both. I mean, how can you even think about starting a project if you don’t know what you’re aiming to achieve; and once you’ve defined the aims, the first step is always to write the project plan to get you there.
How could it be otherwise?
Thus, we force-fit every project into that box – the box where we can define success and work up a plan to achieve it, irrespective of whether that’s actually the right box for it. Twenty-six years on from Obeng, we are still turning all our problems into nails, simply because we know how to use a hammer.
It’s exactly the same with strategy. On paper, the process is simple: we set the vision, work out the big plan to realise that vision, then we follow the plan. Some people even call it “strategic planning” because that’s what strategy looks like: a clear end goal and a set of plans we know will get us there.
Even though we know, we absolutely know from years of experience, that we can’t accurately describe the business we will have in five years. And even if we believed we could, to try and realise that single, specific image, would necessitate a level of tunnel vision bordering on insanity. Because, if the last eighteen months has taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans of mice and men… well… you know the rest.
Nevertheless, we have a hammer, its name is planning, and so we try and do it anyway. But here’s the thing, there are three other boxes in Obeng’s model, three other ways to create a future, and what’s more, we know that they work. There are examples all around.
Most people writing a book don’t actually know what it’s going to look like when it’s finished. But they trust the process: start with a vague idea, write every day, use a good editor, find an agent or a publisher, iterate through multiple drafts, and eventually there will be a book. Most likely a far better book than the one the author envisioned at the start.
Conversely, when an inventor comes up with a brilliant idea to fill a gap in the market, they may be able to visualise the end result perfectly, but they often have no idea how they could make it, or build it, or even if it’s technically possible. But they trust the idea, and they keep trying and testing different approaches, from plan A, to plan B, and eventually, hopefully, they find a plan that works.
Were every author to stick with their initial outline, or every inventor to hold to their first stab at a manufacturing process, both literature, and the world, would be a far poorer place. His vision must flex. Her plans must adapt. And they do. We see new books and innovations every day.
This recognition is central to understanding what a modern business strategy needs to embrace, because a strategy is never just a collection of eminently plannable stuff, it is, and always should be, a mixture of types.
Some aspects might have clear deliverables that can be planned; others will need to be agile – novel products created through a process of iteration; some parts might be little more than bold ideas, solutions that we have no idea how to bring to reality; and other elements might be interesting possibilities we know little about, but we want to explore.
Each of these has a radically different time horizon. Each requires a qualitatively different form of management, measurement, and methodology. Some parts of that mixture will move faster than others; some innovations will succeed, some explorations will draw a blank; some of the plans will need to change as the world outside changes; and new, better, bolder ideas will come along as others innovate elsewhere.
A strategy is, by necessity, a collection of moving parts adapting to a changing environment. It can never stand still. It must constantly evolve, and we need to recognise this and accept it. We need to change our one-box idea of what strategy should look like, and consequently, of what strategy development even means.
Because strategy development in that context cannot possibly be an event. It has to be a continual and ongoing process. A blend of planning, yes, but also of innovation, exploration, and discovery. Creating, evolving, and managing this blend, as it shifts, changes, and reacts to events, that is the key to strategic success.
That is the modern art of strategy.