Why bother with strategy.

Strategies may be worth less, but developing them is more valuable than ever

When I first started in consulting almost 15 years ago, clients would come to me with all kinds of strategic problems: how to approach a complex negotiation, how to schedule their labour more efficiently, how to grow their business to the next level.

I’d do what all consultants did: try to gather all the information I could, speak to their people, maybe visit some sites or interview some customers. Then I’d do lots of analysis, thinking, and head-scratching, present back what I saw as the main options, and make my recommendations.

In some ways it was a good approach. I did all the work, took a complex problem off my client’s plate, saved them time and resources, and gave them the answers they sought. They’d walk away with a new process, plan, or strategy, and I’d walk away with payment, hopefully a couple of introductions, and maybe a call in a few years’ time to come in and do it again.

In some ways it was a good approach, but in all the important ways: ownership, adaptability, development, sustainability, it was terrible.

As the gloriously named Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once observed, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.” Or, as Mike Tyson simply put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Over the last decade, those punches have been coming thicker and faster. Disruptive technologies, digital competition, the ethical consumer, the green revolution, Brexit, the pandemic, the great resignation, skilled labour shortages, supply chain disruption, sky-rocketing inflation…

Any business still following the same strategy, let alone the same plans, as they were two or three years ago, is living on heavily borrowed time.

Now, more than ever, it is a leadership team’s own ability and confidence to quickly analyse and solve emerging problems, to rapidly replan and continually rethink strategy for a changing environment, that’s far more valuable than any plans or strategies themselves.

As Winston Churchill wrote in 1941, “…the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.” Sixteen years later his war-time ally and by then US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, went further in a speech when he said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Strategies are worth less every year, but I help far more organisations to develop them now than I ever did. The difference, fifteen years on, is that neither I nor my clients see the strategy itself as the most valuable outcome from those engagements. Because it isn’t.

Now, we look at the process of strategy development as merely a vehicle, a framework of teaching and coaching that will develop the leadership team’s capacity to think strategically; to gather and build insights; to form hypotheses and challenge assumptions themselves; to develop their own options and form their own recommendations.

Creatively. Confidently. Continually.

The strategy that comes out at the end is merely a starting point; a crystallisation of their conclusions at that moment in time, in that context, but one that will continue to be tested and challenged, extended and evolved by the team themselves as that context changes.

Gone are the days when you could develop a three-year plan or a five-year strategy, then get on and deliver it. Gone are the days when it was the boss’s job to think and everyone else’s job to do.

All of our leaders and managers now need to be able to think and do at the same time; able to observe, learn, and rethink on the fly; able to develop fresh plans and strategies as they go.

So, how are you reframing and rethinking your projects and processes, not merely to achieve a result, but as a vehicle to develop people who will continually improve on those results?

And how are you consciously developing your people’s ability to respond strategically, whenever their plans get punched in the mouth?