The Relevance Of Strategy In Today’s Environment

 By Michael Kipp

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“Strategic planning” seldom produces “strategy”. Even when it does, 70% never get implemented. Managers at all levels are justifiably jaded about vision statements, annual themes and self-congratulatory lists. Leadership’s challenge right now is to design a real-time, broadly engaging process that enables people to find their voice on what truly matters and act on it.

Ten years ago the cynics were claiming that the “new economy” had made strategy obsolete. Five years later they argued that terrorism made strategy irrelevant. Today, fresh from a beat-down by the real economy, the same crowd wants to “just do it” but hopes it will magically be done “out of the box”. At no time has thinking and managing strategically been “old school”.

Michael Kipp has been a principal in businesses as diverse as banking, health care and internet commerce, a CEO and a coach on strategic leadership to nearly 100 organizations. As a director and organizer of a recently acquired National bank chartered just one month before 9/11, he has a deep appreciation for real-time strategic change.

Against this backdrop, he has developed an approach to teaching and facilitating teams that want to “define and secure their preferred future” in a present that seems ill-defined and not particularly secure. This approach is based on seven fundamental realities about strategy:

One: The “Right” Process is the one that gives you the most direct confrontation with your core challenge. Leadership does best when it endorses an approach that promotes an “in your face” relationship with both vulnerability and opportunity. Construct all design decisions regarding participation and pre-work so as to keep the reality of that challenge at the center of your attention.

Two: Most people are more interested in business as usual than bold moves. As much as we want change, most of us would rather counterfeit the process than undergo the pain of abandoning a past that worked so well. We just want the current business case to work better. Be pulled by vision, but manage in small successes.

Three: New initiatives seldom come from old insights. J. Paul Getty famously observed that “in times of change, experience can be your worst enemy”. Yes, you can “act yourself into a new way of thinking”, but for groups, new knowledge is essential to new behavior. Everyone should be involved in gathering primary data outside the range of their normal experience so as to equip themselves for true dialogue on strategic intent.

Four: Dysfunctional teams prevent both breakthrough and follow-through. Executive teams often handle conflict poorly, conduct themselves according to unwritten rules that limit their effectiveness, and waste time in “violent agreement.” Members bludgeon one another over differences in mindset and style. They tacitly consent not to learn from their collective experience for the sake of keeping the peace. Alternately, everyone speaks his or her mind but no one ever changes it. Unless these dysfunctions are addressed squarely, no process will produce meaningful change.

Five: All organizations are perfectly designed to achieve the results they are getting. While management texts argue that “form follows function,” it limits function as well. A three-business unit design, for example, will often impede cross-selling, geographic focus or the achievement of enterprise-wide synergies. Deliberations on strategy that don’t consider design barriers to new behavior unwittingly accept the limits imposed by reporting relationships, work flows and other elements of organizational architecture.

Six: People do better at things they had a hand in creating. Executives often ask how they can get “buy in” as if there were an after-the-fact communications program that might seize the masses. Strategy is not just about facts; it is about meaning…and meaning grows from the opportunity to engage around important matters. Companies that execute well have found creative ways of engaging people in the development of strategy and its meaning for their lives.

Seven: Organizational change begins with personal change. For an organization to truly change, a critical mass of people must fundamentally alter their perspectives on themselves, their working relationships and the world in which they live. Individuals always undergo significant change before organizations do. Any genuine assessment of readiness for strategic change must go beyond “it” and “them.” “It’s” usually not up to them; it’s down to “us.”

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