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Against strategy

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Thursday, 6 April 2017


We do have a few advantages, perhaps the greatest being that we don't have a strategic plan - Warren Buffett

It's a common lament that, within organisations whether in the public, private or not-for-profit sector, boards and/or senior management don't get enough time to talk strategy, that they get caught up in the weeds. Another common refrain after time is made is that it wasn't well spent and that any conclusions it came to were useless and/or ignored come Monday morning. What's going on here?


In the most glamorous parts of the economy - in start-up land - strategic questions like what the organisation's value prop really is/should be and to whom and whether and when the organisation should 'pivot' are often crucial and top of mind, though even here, big strategic decisions are very occasional, made on very inadequate information and then it's down to execution.

Why strategy?

Why the hankering for strategy? I think it comes from an inchoate mix of things - good and bad. Firstly 'ops' reports and their discussion aren't usually taken as invitations to wider strategic discussion. And if they were, departures into strategic questions need to be well structured/managed and responses to ops reports might not be the best place for them. Secondly, for many senior management and board members, frustrations abound. Organisations perform and coordinate a range of activities that can be highly skilled and governing that is rarely done well - because it's inherently very difficult. Of course, bad organisations have frustrations, but only dull organisations don't have frustrations. So senior managers are groping to find ideas and tools to fix those frustrations - because they're often connected with each other. Do we need a different culture? Why don't we spend more time focusing on where we're going rather than how we're going? Are we too hierarchical - surely if we were less hierarchical communications would be a lot better between marketing and finance, manufacturing and HR or policy and implementation.

Strategy as performance of high status management

Finally one of the big drivers is status and upward flattery. Deliberating on strategy is a performance of senior management's responsibility and so, importance. Note, in this context, the way strategic thinking can legitimate endless do-loops in which those with the greatest power and prestige in the system rehearse their power and prestige which is a critical part of the problem. Thus as Mike Bracken writes in defence of the slogan "The strategy is delivery" about his period in the UK's Government Digital Service:

One of the many lessons in my 18 months in Government has been to watch the endless policy cycles and revisions accrue – revision upon revision of carefully controlled Word documents, replete with disastrous styling. Subs to Ministers, private office communications, correspondence across departments and occasional harvesting of consultation feedback all go into this mix.

Rarely, if ever, does user need [ie a low status consideration] get a look-in. User need, if referenced at all, is self-reinforcing, in that the internal user needs dominate those of users of public services. I've lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of 'Well, the department needs are different…' How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me.

Andy Murray's Retreat: Twelve take-outs you just won't believe!

Consider Andy Murray, who could not be said to lack intent.


I am surprisingly well-connected in the world of elite tennis. So, whenever I'm watching Wimbledon - whether from my private box or on the box - I've always got a lot of highly strategic observations about how each of the players could improve. It's a wonder the place isn't bugged right? But who's to say, in this day and age, it's not? Certainly, I've been going on about Federer's need to improve his backhand against Nadal, and what do you know? Two big wins in a few weeks.

In any event, a few years ago Andy went on a strategy retreat. After the first morning with his team and a facilitator from BCG, a vision was agreed. "My mission is to be No. 1 in the universe". On further reflection over the afternoon, everyone agreed that not just Andy, but the entire team could do with more focus. For Andy's team, you really can't get enough focus.[1. For a while, Andy's team considered this as a vision statement: "Andy, Andy, Andy, Focus, Focus, Focus". Later they nearly settled on "Andy Murray: When too much focus is barely enough". The session was abandoned after Andy got a migraine, but that gives you some flavour of how seriously the whole thing was taken.] So this was narrowed down to "My mission is to be No 1 tennis player on planet earth". See how we were able to narrow down Andy's task - by orders of magnitude.

The rest of the retreat was dedicated to 'driving down' this mission into a concrete business plan. With the hard decisions out of the way, and the time-consuming wordsmithing largely dealt with, it took only another half day to come up with these goals (which were then sent off to corporate to be mapped onto KPIs offline).

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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