Forget leadership, find a strategy

In order to effectively deliver to customers, businesses must first acknowledge that clear strategy is more important than some other management concepts.

The summer holidays give us the pleasure of watching elite sports men and women in cricket and in tennis. We marvel at their ability to perform seemingly impossible feats (how could Michael Clarke for hours, with apparent ease, dispatch rocks being hurled at him at more than 140km per hour!). We speak of such people being ‘in the zone’, by which we mean an alignment of body and mind that produces an easy, graceful power.

Mastery in any field, of course, does not come cheaply; the ‘zone’ is a state that normally reflects years of determined practice.

In our business lives, we occasionally witness masterful individuals but we cannot rely on them for consistent success. For this, we need our group – our company, our division, our team – to be masterful. So we ask: how is it possible for our group to demonstrate consistent mastery? What would we call this, what would it look like, how would we do it? Human Resources experts would argue that leadership and culture is the key. They name the wrong gods. Strategy is the key.

Strategy is not some sort of high-level planning activity divorced from the day-to-day running of the business (although it has become this in many organisations). Strategy is about achieving and maintaining effective intent. When effective intent is present, you are in the zone and, like the elite sports stars, your group can achieve pretty much anything it wants.

Effective intent is about matching ambition and capability, as one without the other does not lead to mastery. In the diagram below, if ambition (sometimes called strategic intent) is ahead of capability you are over-promising. Many, if not most, businesses operate in this space and are constantly frustrated by long lists of things to do, pressure and disappointment. If capability is ahead of ambition then you are under-delivering. This is particularly true of many large enterprises (and bureaucracies) that are constantly frustrated for different reasons.

When ambition and capability are matched you are in the zone of effective intent. Only then can you deliver the promise.

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So, where is your group on this chart, and how do you get in the zone and stay there?

The first thing to do is recognise that these are not primarily questions about HR or culture or values or governance – all the things that have become a substitute for genuine capability. They are questions about strategy.

The strategic process provides the over-arching framework not only to define ambition and set goals (the what of the agenda) but also to define the pathway to achieving goals (the how of the agenda). Strategy therefore defines the entire game – the what and the how – and is everyone’s concern, from the chairman down to people on the shop floor. In a good business, everything is strategic in the sense that it is part of a constant process of creating and maintaining effective intent.

Sounds good, you say, but how do we do it? My answer is in three parts.

1. Commit to bringing strategy back to centre stage. This means seeing strategy as the central driving process for just about everything, not a periodic, mind-numbing, ritual involving SWOT analyses and mission statements

2. Ignore the chattering of all the analysts and drone-like directors wanting quarter-on-quarter performance, and profit guidance. An excessive focus on the short term will make your group tactical and reactive rather than strategic.

3. Commit to a new strategic process that places as much emphasis on capability as it does on ambition (so that you can get in the ‘zone’).

A good way to do this involves six steps:

a. Define the enduring purpose of your business (why do we exist?);
b. Describe what ‘winning’ looks like (from a future perspective);
c. Ask, ‘what must we excel at to win?’ (This is the first critical step in translating ambition into capability);
d. For each of these things, ask ‘what does it mean to excel at this?’ (This step deepens our understanding of how to win and creates the context for action);
e. Complete action plans in 180-day and 24-month time frames (these time frames are much more effective than the 12 month budget period); and
f. Develop a set of high-level principles, or rules, to help you make decisions (by relating them to the types of decisions you intend to make).

It helps if this process is informed by some powerful ideas that flow from the internal and external analysis of the business (what I call SOWOT rather than SWOT, to emphasise the importance of the ‘so what?’ question when looking for relevant information). It also helps if you can push all the CSR and governance clutter to one side so that it does not affect the quality of strategic thought.

If the above process seems simple enough, that is because it is. It is the sort of simplicity that leads to engagement, enthusiasm and commitment from all those involved. I have watched sales people, production supervisors, accountants, secretaries, divisional heads and CEOs all become enthusiastic strategists. They engage in common cause because they can see what winning looks like and, above all, they can see how to win. One of my associates calls it ‘enlightenment for business’. Why don’t you try it?

Christopher J Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics.

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