|Picture by Henrik Mårtensson|
I originally published this article at Linkedin Pulse
When I transitioned from my work as a developer and systems architect into working with leadership, strategy, organization, and process improvement, I had a lot to learn. Naturally, I read a lot, I joined interest groups, and I asked questions. I soon discovered that there were some questions that, though very important, were never asked.
The reason for not asking important questions is usually embarrassment. If I know I am supposed to know something, but I don't, then it is embarrassing to ask. Short term, it is often easier to hide the lack of knowledge.
The downside, of course, is that if one does not ask, one does not learn. If nobody asks, nobody learns, but everyone believes everybody else knows…
This can create a downwards spiral, where nobody knows anything about something, but everybody is to busy hiding their lack of knowledge to notice.
I found that in business, strategy is one of those somethings. I found that nobody dared to ask a very fundamental question about strategy. I also found that the lack of an answer caused confusion, lack of direction, lack of cohesion, cost a lot of money, caused poor working conditions, stress, unnecessary layoffs… I could go on, but you get the gist of it.
What was the question? A very simple one really:
What is strategy?
When I got interested in business strategy, I found business books about the topic confusing. Terminology was defined in rather loose terms. The definitions did not help me in any practical way. There were many different definitions. Some authors even dismissed strategy as a useless waste of time.
I found this difficult to understand. Strategy is important in Game Theory (which deals with business problems, among other things), it is important in Chess, a military organization cannot survive a war without strategy, in ecosystems, animals and plants have survival strategies. Why would business, which is obviously a strategic, competitive game, be any different?
Strategy is the answer to a Question!
I did find one business definition of strategy that worked for me. It is from the Theory Of Constraints:
Strategy is the answer to the question "What for?"
Tactics is the answer to the question "How to?"
In other words, a strategy is a structure consisting of an ultimate goal, and a set of intermediate objectives that, if achieved, will lead to achieving the goal.
The definition also made it clear that for each goal or intermediate objective, there must be at least one corresponding tactic.
Viewed through the lens of that definition, strategy and tactics in a business context made a lot more sense than it had before. The definition works for all strategic games, not just business. It also clearly separates strategy and tactics. Most other definitions tend to muddle them, and get lost in fuzzy lines of reasoning about different scale and scope.
Confusing Strategy & Tactics
Unfortunately, while strategy and tactics as useful concepts started to make sense, the business strategy documents I read made correspondingly less sense.
For one thing, I found that most of the strategy documents I read weren't strategy documents at all. They were filled with material on how to do things, with zero information on why these things had to be done in the first place.
Many strategy documents were actually tactical documents, masquerading as strategy documents. When I found tactics in strategy documents, I used to go looking for actual strategy, but most of the time, there simply was no strategy to be found, just a random collection of things to do, with little cohesion, or even working against each other.
The Emperor's New Clothes
Other "strategy" documents were hilariously obfuscated. Some were obfuscated so well that neither I, nor anyone else, know what is actually in them.
One company I had worked for had got "help" developing a strategy from a rather large consultancy. When I had a look at strategy documents from the consultancy, I found them difficult to read. Suspiciously difficult! So, I ran their documents through a readibility calculator, and found that the language was so complex you needed a doctor's degree in English to figure out what the content was.
Nobody could read and understand the darn things, and everybody was too embarrassed to say anything about it.
What's the use of having a strategy nobody can read and understand? Apart from confusing competitors, not much.
Keep it Simple!
Personally, I like to express strategies as diagrams, instead of with text only. Diagrams make it easier to build a coherent, and easy to understand, overview.
My favorite method, The Logical Thinking Process, (yes, I know the name is cringeworthy,) is pretty good. I get the overview, and it is also easy to dig down into more detail when necessary. There are plenty of other useful methods around, but one has to do a bit of research to find them.
A Game of Interaction and Isolation
It is useful to have more than one perspective, so I did not stop with the Theory Of constraints view of strategy. I found very useful material in a military strategic framework, Maneuver Conflict, by Col. John Boyd:
Strategy is a game of interaction and isolation!
How is that useful? Well, if you know that you want to strengthen interactions between yourself and your allies (including customers), and isolate your enemies from each other, then you can check if that is what you are doing.
I found that remarkably often, it isn't. Companies use organizational structures explicitly designed to reduce the interactions of its employees, often because they reuse old organizational designs, without knowing the original purpose.
Conversely, companies do a lot of stuff that separates them from their customers, and drives the customers into the arms of competitors. For example, I can no longer make a phone call to my bank without giving them a password, over the phone, before I even get to talk to somebody. If I were not already a customer, I would not be able to call them at all.
In addition to having a clear definition of strategy, it helps to have a set of basic principles of strategy. I mean really basic, so basic that they are relevant to any game of strategy. That is something Maneuver Conflict provides, but business strategy frameworks rarely do.
Speaking of principles, I have found old Chinese texts, like The Art of War, and 36 Stratagems, to be very useful. They provide insight, and they can be used as idea generators. No wonder that Chinese business people study them.
I'll do a follow up article about 36 Stratagems soon. There are stories to tell. :-)
Note: The 36 Stratagems article will take awhile. Might even end up becoming a book, so please don't hold your breath waiting for it.