Why do senior managers and directors avoid strategy?
In a recent blog – “How Strategy Really Works – My Three Cs” – I discussed my views about what makes good strategy. Understanding Customers, Beating Competitors and Being in Control. I thought that provided managers understood these three principles, the pathway to developing good strategies was clear. Understand the principles, develop your strategies around them.
However, recently I have started to reflect. Understanding the three Cs is not the start of the strategy journey – more the middle or even the end. Discussions with senior managers with whom I work and those attending my Executive MBA classes have got me thinking. A fairly consistent theme is developing. The theme is that strategy is either for somebody else or so poorly developed that it’s best to nod in agreement and hope it will go away!
So let’s have a look at some of the issues which contribute to senior people hoping that “strategy” will disappear or go away.
Strategy is too nebulous for real managers!
It’s the stuff of MBAs – we need to get on with running the business.
I’m too busy to think about strategy.
Pressure is always on sorting out tomorrow’s (or today’s) issues. Meeting the here and now, today’s budgets or putting out the fires. Interestingly, managers tend to like trouble shooting, whatever they tell us. Short term praise hides the reasons for the fire!
We do strategy. Just take a look at our latest business plan!
Business plans! They start as some sort of best intention strategy paper but pretty soon take on a life of their own, adding incrementally year on year – typically budget and sales forecasts, but certainly not strategic reviews. But that’s okay. If a senior manager produces a big enough business plan then he or she can be pretty confident that nobody will want to read it and certainly not comment on it (or even understand it!).
And what about the Strategic Planning Directorate?
I’ve seen so many large organisations where the office of the Strategic Planning Directorate (typically on the top floor) is a place to be feared rather than revered and rarely actually contributes to strategy. I discovered this a few years ago when I asked a strategic planning director to give a talk on company strategy to one of my MBA classes. The director declined saying she didn’t really know that much about strategy and certainly wasn’t confident enough to say anything in front of a class of ambitious managers! So if you don’t know much about strategy, how can you become a strategic planning director in charge of a strategic planning directorate? It’s quite easy really. Because your role is not to take the organisation forward but rather to make sure that the detailed business plan (yes, that plan!) is put into action through a series of KPIs, metrics, tick boxes, sign offs and so on. It’s in the interest of strategic planning directorate to make sure that few managers actually understand strategy. If they did they’d be able to see the ever expanding documentation for what it is. Strategic planning directorates are gatekeepers rather than innovators. Their job is to keep everyone on their toes or to put it another way, make sure that people become so scared about not ticking the right boxes that the actual reasoning behind those boxes – “the strategy” – is quickly forgotten.
We did strategy on our last away day…but it didn’t work.
For many senior managers strategy is all about the “away day”. Let’s get everybody into a big conference room and do some cutting edge “brainstorming”. This rarely results in anything meaningful. Everyone knows nothing will happen. There’ll be a huge wish list at the end of the morning, the result of lots of flipcharts and post it notes. But have we the energy to deal with the wish list? Well not by the time that big lunch (the other reason for the away day) is over and our focus is on that 5 o’clock finish. But at least we’ve got that over with for this year.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. I spend quite a lot of time working with senior teams and once we’ve got rid of all the “noise” around strategy and focused on what really matters – customers and competitors – it’s amazing how quickly they start to engage. I recently facilitated a board strategy day. A few weeks later the chairman told me that the 50 page business plan had now been reduced to 5 and, here’s the interesting thing, the business became more focused and more successful.
Does any of this ring true to you? Quite possibly. Is any of this a lightbulb insight? I doubt it. Yet it goes on year after year. Strategy is about the future of the organisation, getting to the issues which really matter, working out what needs to change. At Market Echoes we have a very simple way of working with senior managers. For one day, maybe a day and a half. No more. It’s about getting to the heart of issues, getting rid of all the documentation and working out what the company really needs to do to change for the better. It’s actually about less is more rather than more is best. And it’s certainly not about functions whose title let alone activity is enough to send us to sleep, enough to encourage us to avoid strategy.
Have you got stories to share on strategy? Are you a strategic planning director and want to defend your cause?! Would love to hear from you.