When strategy has no substance

It’s not a bad thing to ask people to dream or set their sights higher, or even aim for something no one else thinks is possible. But is that enough?

UCLA Management Professor, Richard Rumelt, likens adhering to stretch goals without substance, to “the great pushes of 1915-17 during World War 1, which led to the deaths of a generation of European youths.”[1] He goes on to say that, “Maybe that’s why motivational speakers are not the staple on the European management-lecture circuit that they are in the United States”.

As a participant and facilitator of strategy development over many years, I’ve enjoyed the best and witnessed the worst of strategic planning.

I’m sure you have been in meetings and heard things like –

  • “We can do it. We’ll just push through!”
  • “As long as we have a great vision, people will follow”
  • “Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks, they’re just being negative”
  • “Why shouldn’t we do it? We’ve got the resources”
  • “Forget the potential obstacles; we’ll deal with them if they happen”

Believe me, that’s just the start of a very long list!

Don’t get me wrong, while it can be particularly inspiring and exciting to have ‘stretch’ goals, it’s important to have clarity about what you want to achieve and to understand what your competitive advantage is. What is it that will set you apart from others who have similar goals? Or, who has products and services that will compete against you in the same market?

Merely having a vision or goal and no plan leaves you and your organization vulnerable. To have a plan without considering what might prevent you from achieving those goals also leaves your organization at risk.

Rumelt states that –

Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hot hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them. Not miscalculation, bad strategy is the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.[2]

What is unique and distinctive about what you are offering that sets you apart from the competition? Why would people want what your organization is offering over another? If it is merely price, then it is only a matter of time before someone manages to provide it at a cheaper price than you. If it is quality service you are offering, then it won’t be long before someone else comes along with better service. There’s got to be more distinguishing features about what you offer.

This is why Jim Stengel believes that businesses have got to give greater consideration not only to ‘what’ they do, as much as ‘who’ they want to be. He believes that businesses are only as strong as their brand.[3] Although important, merely improving performance, market growth, and sales are not enough!

John Mackey, CEO of the American supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, says –

It is difficult to impossible to truly inspire the creators of customer happiness—the employees—with the ethic of profit maximization. Maximizing profits may excite investors, but I assure you most employees don’t get very excited about it even if they accept its validity as one of the legitimate goals of business. It is my experience that employees can get very excited and inspired by a business that has an important business purpose.”[4]

What’s the bottom-line?

If we are in leadership, we must demand more from ourselves. More than charisma and vision; more than goals and ideas; and more than the ability to attract and manage the talent we need. We must demand good strategy.

 

[1] Richard Rumelt, “The Perils of Bad Strategy”, McKinsey Quarterly, June 2011, 3.

[2] Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (London: Profile Books, 2011), 58.

[3] Jim Stengel, GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies (New York: Random House, 2011), 11.

[4] Roy Spence, Jr. and Haley Rushing, It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business is Driven By Purpose (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 29.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *