The Strategy of Things
The strategy of things has been existence for thousands of years. Its study continues, leading to a combination of new insights that have made strategy clearer, its application easier as well as those that have turned strategy application a disaster.
Definitions and Understandings of strategy and strategic thinking and strategic planning
Strategic thinking, strategic planning and strategy execution in Zimbabwe is grossly varied. This variation is caused first by lack of awareness of strategy and its use by many organisations especially those in the information and SME sectors. The second variation occurs within the formal sector, driven largely by different attitudes, different approaches and different understandings of what strategy is all about and how to do strategy. The biggest varies is caused by the different understandings of strategy which is evident when you ask two or more executives or managers to define strategy for you. In the majority of cases, I can argue for 95% of the time, two or more executives, even those in the same organisation will come up with different definitions, or at least different variations or different flavours of strategy, strategic thinking and strategic planning. The same executives can work together for years, undertaking strategy work together including strategic planning sessions, talking about strategy and agreeing in many aspects of strategy, but with each having her own interpretation of what strategy is. This many sound trivial since that variation rarely leads to the organisations or company getting into trouble, but it is not wise to assume that since nothing serious happens they it is fine. The truth is by assuming common understanding of strategy when different understanding exist, companies and organisations lose a great deal of potential success, growth and revenue because that variations means the team may not be contributing their best in terms of strategy and strategic thinking input. Your definition of things reflects how you think about things and how you think about things determines the quality of your input.
Strategy has mutated so much that there are hundreds of variations, of which 99.9 % fall between the bad, incomplete, poor, false and misleading, leaving only 0,1 percent being pure strategy with differing levels of minor contamination. In its pure form, real strategy is strategy regardless of in which field it is applied. Strategy operates according to same universal principles regardless, the same way all plants operate according to the same principles.
When hired to facilitate strategy sessions, the first thing I do is ask the participants what their personal definition of strategy, strategic thinking, and strategic planning and strategy execution. They always come up with different definitions and in many cases the definitions are not accurate enough or strong enough to lead to the development of a real strategy of high quality. Over the years I have read explored strategy from many different angles and have studied from some of the world’s finest workers and practitioners in tragedy, from the ancient to the modern. So the way I understand strategy is different from the way strategy is normally defined and approached especially in the formal academia where most of the executives and managers get most of their understanding of strategy.
Strategy, Strategic Thinking and the Strategist
To produce a real strategy requires at least one real strategist to be in the strategic planning team. In fact every organisation, business, company or economy must have known and identified strategists if it is to produce real strategies and achieve the best possible results. More than 98% of the companies, organisations, businesses and economies and countries operate without known, competent strategists. Go into any organisation or company and ask the question,
Who is the strategist in this company or organisation?
The chances are high that you either receive a blank stare or some will tell you that the chief executive officer, or general manager or the main leader is the strategist; which is contestable. The term chief executive officer implies execution, not strategy. Several studies, including those by Harvard Business School have argued that only as little as 8 percent of the people, including those in top positions, are good at both strategy formulation and strategy execution. This implies that as little as 8% of top leaders including chief executive officers, general managers, presidents, managing directors and board chairpersons are the real strategists in their organisations. This many sound trivial, but given the mediocrity in many organisations, companies and economies, having a real strategist in management is critical because it dramatically improves effectiveness, growth, efficiency, performance and long term survivability of the business, company and organisations.
Many chief executives and other people in positions of leadership may feel uncomfortable that they might not be right people to be in the position of strategist for their organisations, but they do not need to be; they just need to have a real known, competent strategist at the highest level in their team; if their domain is execution, they can then become more effective because they will then execute great strategies. He who knows his balance of power between strategy and executive is a thousand times more powerful than he would is either ignorant in the matter of strategy and he who falsely assumes the competence that one does not possess.
“There is nothing more dangerous in strategy that flawless execution of a bad strategy” Simon Bere
To be great in strategy in any domain, for example marketing, one must possess the strategic mindset and then develop a deepening understanding of strategy; knowledge of the domain such as marketing, brand, politics is desirable but not the essential aspect of being good at strategy. Many people who work in the field of strategy as well as decision-makers who could benefit most from strategy are either not aware of this fact or dismiss this notion with consequences. A formal academic qualification in a field such as leadership, marketing or politics is in no way related to strategic thinking capacity and capability. Few consider this when they talk about strategy.
The Strategist Versus the Strategic Planning Facilitator
It is somewhat surprising that in the 21st Century, many decision-makers and professional still lack the clarity between a strategic planning facilitator and a strategist. Even when the talk of strategy is a ubiquitous as oxygen, very few can clearly define what a strategist is and how a real strategist really does and how she is different from a non-strategist. This very common in the corporate and the economic worlds and here they are beaten by the world of politics where the employment of strategist is more common especially in American politics.
The role of a real strategist is helping individuals or organisations in strategic affairs that in total I would call results and performance management. In other words the strategist’s helps the individual, organisation, company, team, economy or country to deliver the best possible results under a given set of circumstances that we call a situation. The strategist achieves this mandate primarily through the use of strategic thinking but also using knowledge, appropriate tools and other skills. The role of the strategist can be once off, for example in designing and developing a strategy, assessing an existing strategy or strategic plan for its potency and credibility, or for analysing a situation and providing strategic insights for strategic decision-making or in conducting a strategic audit of any organisation to determine its strategic capacity and capability to prevail in a current situation or an anticipated future situation.
The role of a strategist can also be current and ongoing, for example during execution where the strategist provides navigational strategic input and advice in response to an unfolding situation. This is vital because a real strategist has the capacity to see what non-strategists won’t see in a situation; real strategist can quickly assess a situation and come up with a quick and good answer to keep the situation in the hands of the person or to tilt the situation back in favour of the executing individual, team or organisation. Real strategists can see the critical patterns in a situation that appears haphazard, incomplete and incomprehensible and make a sound judgement that moves the momentum forward towards a the predetermined desired outcome. The real strategist sees not just the big picture, but also the destination and the means and ways for getting to the destination.
An individual’s strategic capacity is largely the strategist thinks although factual knowledge and understanding in strategy and domain of operating as well and experience helps. The real strategist sees the whole theatre; the tactician understands only the current battlefield. The real strategist also sees not just the big picture but also the critical details that will lead to a desirable outcome or desired future state. While in some cases, the desired future state equals the current state; strategy is predominantly about the transaction between a current situations to a more desirable future situation. Superior strategy is pre-emptive of a situation, meaning it aims to avoid a bad, dangerous or undesirable situation. Few leaders and organisations are capable of operating in a pre-emptive strategic mode for prolonged periods of time; they fall to the vices of strategic complacency, strategy apathy, strategic indifference, strategic arrogance and strategic confusion.
Many business leaders have still not realised that modern leaders now employ private personal strategists. They are also yet to realise that the most successful companies around the world now work with designated strategists on a continuous arrangements to help them in strategic navigation. They realised ages ago that the days of once off, ritualistic strategic planning retreats that often lead to half-baked compromised fake strategic outputs at best and basic routine operational plans and budgets documented and neatly bound and labelled “strategic plans” are over. This is the age of real strategy.
The Strategic Planning Facilitator
A strategic planning facilitator does not have to be a strategist; but using a strategist as a strategic planning facilitator has an advantage if it is done well. The role of a strategic planning facilitator is like that of a conductor of an orchestra band. The facilitator is responsible for ensuring that a strategy session delivers the best possible outcome, by ensuring the best use of the available resources including the intellectual and emotional input of the team involved in the strategy session. The facilitator is not supposed to be a contributor to the substance of the strategy, but to ensure that the process produces the best possible conversation and output from the participants. Neither is the role of the facilitator to be an elaborate teacher of strategy. Rookie strategic planning facilitators often fall into the trap of turning a strategic planning facilitator into an intellectual lecture in strategy; the result a disaster. In addition, many people get into the area of strategic planning facilitation but they lack not the talent and the train in effective facilitation; they do not even know the boundaries between teaching and facilitation and what exactly to do and not to do when facilitating a strategy session. These people get away with it, and even get lavish praise from their clients not because they are good but because the clients also do not know what great facilitation is and how it is different from the mediocre. The problem is these clients pay heavily in lost potential and in long term imperceptible strategic drift caused by produced weak or flawed strategies that neither dramatically shift present results nor position the company or economy in the right path towards growth into the future. Every strategy session done poorly is a missed opportunity that will either become a waste of resources or setting the business on a path to failure in the future. Strategy is about decisions and decisions have consequences. Therefore a strategic planning facilitator who neither understands her role nor does not do her facilitation well, steering the strategic planning team away from the hard what they must confront is dangerous.
Many organisations are also guilty of taking strategy and strategic planning too lightly. Even when the organisation fears using external strategic planning facilitators on account of their strategies being leaked to their competition, the organisation cannot be absolved from using a competent strategic planning facilitator. There are causes available for facilitators and the least such organisations can do is ensure they send one of two people in their organisation to strategic planning facilitation course organised and run by a competent trainer in strategic planning facilitation.
Another way that shows that some organisations do not treat strategy seriously is how they plan for their strategy or strategic planning sessions. Some organisations think they can plan a successful strategic planning or strategy session by themselves even when they have no competent strategic planning facilitator. In their minds planning of a strategic planning session is no different from planning any other event such as a wedding; set a date, produce a least of those who will attend, book a venue, prepare a strategic planning program using the standard template used year in year out and tell those attending that they will going to a strategic planning retreat from this date to this state and bingo! Then if they have a culture of using a strategic planning facilitator, they use their routine approach to choosing who to facilitate the session and use the popular but flawed criteria and process of identifying and selecting the right candidate. Few organisations realise that being a great strategic planning facilitator has nothing to do with having an MBA or PHD is Business. They are also oblivious to the fact that relying on CVs and Profiles to make a decision on whom to choose is completely misleading and false. Some also fall into the error of using the same strategic planning facilitator year in year out not in the basis of merit but on the basis that he did a good job the other time. Strategic companies change their choices of strategic planning facilitator and try at least three different facilitators before they choose whom to stick to or whom to rely on. The strategic planning facilitator who did a good job may neither be the best facilitator in town or many be a bad facilitator in a different future. The problem is these errors are not easy to detect because in many organisations have no reliable object criteria for choosing a good strategic planning facilitator; they rely on a concoction of what the candidate strategic planning facilitator tells them, what they hear from others who endorse the facilitator plus value based judgements divorced from objectivity. Even large corporate companies fall into this trap.
Another major and costly blunder many organisations make is doing short cuts in strategy. They hire a strategic planning facilitator too late and dismiss her too quickly. The best companies at strategy hire a strategic planning facilitator very early in the planning phase to help them with the planning for the event. They work with the facilitator up to a point when the outputs from the strategy session have been integrated into the routine organisational operations including the dissemination of the strategic outputs the implementers. Even when evidence shows otherwise, many companies think they can implement strategic plans and strategic planning outputs by themselves; this is not always possible.
Studies on how different organisations approach strategy shows that the best companies have comprehensive process they use in strategy and they divot generous amounts of time and resources into strategy especially when they are in major strategy work such as turning around a business. The worst companies tend to approach strategy during times of trouble in the same way they approach strategy when they are doing well; they invest very little time in strategy, preferring the traditional of two to three day strategic planning retreats and park anything strategy as they continue with routine operations until the next retreat.
The last of my signs that an organisation does not take strategy and strategic planning seriously is how they treat hiring a strategic planning facilitator or a strategist as an expensive; they want it cheap. In their minds, hiring a strategic planning facilitator or a strategy has the same value as buying bread. They know very well that strategy, not the environment, determines today’s performance and results and determines where the organisation, company, business or economy is heading towards destiny or doom but then they cannot commit to put their best foot forward to work with the best possible resource persons to help them with their strategy work.
Use and Application of Strategy and Strategic Thinking in Zimbabwe’s Organisations
In terms of the use of strategic thinking and strategic planning, Zimbabwe’s companies, businesses and organisations fall into four main categories;
Those companies and organisations that are not consciously aware of strategy and its implications in business and organisational performance and who therefore do not follow any formal approaches to employing strategic thinking, to formulate strategies and run their organisations or businesses strategically. These form most of the informal organisations and most organisations run by specialists and professionals such as lawyers, medical professionals, accountants and others. The result is that these companies rarely grow at all. Even if they often do well, such companies never realise their full potential. It is extremely hard if not impossible to even convince this group how important strategy is for their performance, growth and results transformation.
Those companies and businesses that do some kind of annual strategic planning rituals, but their approaches are flawed and they either produce half-baked strategic outputs or in many cases, they produce nothing more than basic operational plans and budgets which they compile and coin “strategic plans”. Typically such companies produce strategic plans that they then fail to execute because they lack the completeness of real strategies. The word strategy appears in the corporate or organisational vocabulary immediately before, during and after their annual strategic planning retreat and the word is packed away and reserved for the following year’s annual retreat. Because most of these people are run by people with high academic qualifications, the majority of these have adopted a certain approach and a certain way of doing their strategy things including strategic planning they are convinced that their approach is the best way to do strategy; they know it all so they keep on doing the same thing in the same way over and over again, producing the same quality of output that keeps them in the same strategic position and trajectory; their results driven way more by the environment than their strategy.
The third category is that of companies, businesses and organisations that pay serious attention to strategy, deeply understand what real strategy is, run their companies or businesses really strategically and know how to do their strategy thing effectively. Most of these companies are open minded and always explore means to improve not just their strategies but also the processes and approaches for producing the best possible strategies. They value the input of strategy consultants and actively seek their contributions and inputs. These type of companies are few in Zimbabwe and they are the ones whose companies and businesses are industry leaders even though not all industry leaders are necessarily leaders because they excel at running their organisations strategically; some are leaders because of previous strategic agility that positioned them into leadership positions.
The Common Strategic Planning Method
The Typical Strategic Planning Retreat
The traditional approach to strategy in Zimbabwe is undertaking the annual strategic planning retreat; which is a typically two to three day event, attended by senior managers. Justifiably, the retreat is done away from the office, which I believe is the best environment for, other things being equal, undertaking such an important exercise. In many cases, the organisations get an outside facilitator who is hired to guide with the processes and compile the outputs into some documents.
Strategic Planning Facilitation
There are some organisations that however feel that they have in-house capacity to facilitate their strategic planning session, which can be true, but using an outside facilitator, provided that the facilitator is competent, always produces far better outcomes for psychological and practical reasons.
First, if the chief executive officer facilitates a strategic planning session for his own organisation, there is always psychological interference and other participants won’t participate as effectively as they would in a session facilitated by a stranger. In addition, very few people in organisations have the guts to challenge their leaders not matter how much the boss can declare immunity to the participants. In addition, when the boss says something, many people would rather go along and arguments can be constructed among the team members because some members want to align with the boss and will support the boss not because of merit.
Second, whoever is charged to facilitate strategic session will not be able to effectively contribute substance to the process. It is not easy to be a facilitator and a contributor at the same time.
How They Choose Strategic Planning Facilitators
When they decide to use a strategic planning facilitator, many organisations also use different approaches to identifying and choosing one. Some choose their friends or people they know as the main criterion; which is often a mistake because friendship often undermines the capacity of a facilitator to deploy the intellectual brutality that is required to produce a real strategy of high quality. Others base their choice on the experience of the strategic planning facilitator as well as academic qualifications; both of which by themselves do not automatically arrive at the best choice. Experienced facilitators may actually be the worst because they might be using a flawed or an old fashioned approach that leads to the standard strategic planning outputs which are typically nothing more than a basic operational plan and budget peppered with vague or incomplete strategy terminology. The fact that a company did a SWOT analysis and a PESTLE analysis does not mean that they did real strategy. Real strategy comes from serious thinking; strategic planning tools are only aids not the strategic planning itself.
Many organisations select strategic planning facilitators based on applications and profiles. This is a good beginning but using applications and profiles alone is misleading. The best companies followed up on profiles with interviews. There is no better way to know whether someone is as competent as one appears on the CVs as having a live discussion or interview with the person. Some highly capable candidates can be lost on the basis of their CVs or profiles and this is a missed opportunity that most companies never think seriously about.
The Strategic Planning Model
Many organisations in Zimbabwe use the “strategic planning “model which was popularised in the 1970s. This is the rational and logical approach that introduced analytical tools such as SWOT, PESTLE, Ansoff, BCG Matrix, Porters Five Forces and others. While these tools are still effective and useful, many workers in strategy observe that they are now being abused or misused in strategic planning. In addition, many modern organisations have moved away from this straight jacket “planning” approach because of its mechanistic nature which does not reflect the full reality of how things work. In addition, the 21st Century environment is dramatically different from the 20th Century in which the traditional strategic planning approach used to work. Sadly, many companies have stuck to this very model which is clearly is no longer the most effective; the one that has led to the connotation and misbelief that one can produce a brilliant strategy and then fail to execute it.
The Post Strategic Planning Work
The best organisations at strategy and strategic planning following a process that begins right at the initiation of the idea to hold a strategic planning session right through to the integration of the outputs of the strategy session (commonly called the strategic plan) into the daily organisational operations. In addition, the best at strategy then continue monitoring strategy implementation to ensure things are happening and the new strategic plan is well assimilated into the daily operations. There is little evidence that most organisations in Zimbabwe pursue this full process strategy process. Instead, there is widespread talk in Zimbabwe about “brilliant” strategies that are “not executed”. This execution failure is actually a result of a combination of a flawed thinking about strategy plus the use of a flawed approach to strategic planning.
There is a general consensus among many workers in strategy that in general Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean organisations and companies fall short in doing things strategically and where strategy is embraced it is either not given the attention that it deserves or the companies use old fashioned, flawed or poor approaches that at most gives them generic operational plans instead of real, credible strategies.
This article is based on the author’s practical experience as well as years of study and research in strategy, strategic thinking, strategic planning and strategy execution around the world.
©Simon Bere, 2019