TBM 30/52: Why Don’t We Have a Strategy?
The problem isn't that people can't think strategically.
The problem is that there are disincentives to thinking strategically.
Strategy requires discourse, collaboration, contemplation, and critical thinking. It takes time and space. Sadly, time to think—alone and together—is in short supply in most organizations.
It goes deeper.
A product leader recently told me: "The system is not built for me to think. The system is built for me to be reactionary." Why? The theory goes that ideas are cheap, and execution is everything. We celebrate productivity, output, and achieving goals. Consider all the rituals teams have around managing output, tracking metrics, forecasting, sharing plans, and boosting productivity.
Now compare that to time dedicated to thinking (alone and together).
A strategy is not just thinking; this is where many problems arise. It is a mistake to believe that a strategy should be utterly devoid of next steps. Rumelt describes it as follows:
"A good strategy includes a set of coherent actions. They are not "implementation" details; they are the punch in the strategy. A strategy that fails to define a variety of plausible and feasible immediate actions is missing a critical component."
― Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters
But how many presentations jump straight into priority pillars, goals, and "high-level projects"? Look, it is a Grecian temple with a roof and pillars!
Wait, each pillar magically happens to represent a department! Incredible! And this is where things get complicated.
A high % of the people in your company primarily care about vision, goals, and priorities. To them, that is a strategy. Why? It's actionable and impacts them. They trust someone is thinking through a strategy and that the Grecian Temple is an output of the strategy. Or not. They're pragmatic. Pillars are real. Goals are real. Strategy is theoretical. It doesn't matter if they agree on a definition of strategy or not (or if that definition is correct).
Meanwhile, there is a tight circle of people who implicitly understand THE strategy and understand strategy. "It is pretty straightforward what we need to do," they say. "We've talked about this from every single direction. We have to stop thinking and start doing!" Even among this crew, there are varying definitions of strategy and degrees of willingness to spend time plumbing the depths of strategic nuance.
What incentives exist to go deep into the non-action-oriented parts of the strategy (the diagnosis, kernel, and guiding policies to keep using Rumelt)? Not many at all.
A lot of what people think of as strategic malpractice is more about lack of time, fatigue, fear of conflict, and a healthy level of skepticism and pragmatism. Strategy nerds ignore this, and immediately assume people are incompetent.
Even if people don't ask for it, it is vital to discuss things like diagnosis, the kernel, and guiding policies. In fact, by keeping these things private and skipping to action/goals, you perpetuate the habits, stereotypes, and skepticism that characterizes Theory #1. You get into a vicious cycle, as James Fairbairn describes here:
If only a small circle understands the strategy, then only the small circle (that set the first, wrong plan) can change the plan. If it turns out the plan doesn't work, how do you change the plan? WHO can contribute to the changing of the plan?
Note how Rumelt describes "plausible and feasible immediate action," not infallible plans. When those actions fail, the fallback is the set of guiding policies. And when those fail, you have the diagnosis and kernel. Without those layers, what you end up with is very fragile.
By being thoughtful and public about communicating strategy, you help build everyone's critical strategic abilities. You'd be amazed by how quickly people can learn with a role model. Strategy can be applied at many different horizons, so it is vital that everyone builds their skills.