What IF There’s No Final Whistle?
post # 138 — July 20, 2006 — a Strategy post
Cristian Mitreanu has written a fascinating article called “Is Strategy a Bad Word?” He writes:
What explains the relative failure of most organizations to create effective strategy? Part of the problem …can be traced to their interpretation of the word strategy itself…
In war, objectives can often be clearly defined, and so strategy is thought of as a means to a specific end. ….By contrast, sustainable success is not, and cannot be by definition, an end unto itself or a goal to achieve. That is, goal orientation becomes arguably inappropriate when success has to be indefinitely sustained.
Despite this, an overwhelming number of top executives and researchers make extensive use of objectives in their quest for lasting corporate success. …It is, of course, impractical and probably imprudent to advocate a total ban on using objectives in creating corporate strategy, but it is important for strategists to remember that the more specific an objective, the further away it may potentially lead the organization from its optimal big picture.
Another person who offers the caution that we should beware taking our business parallels from war or from sports is Charlie Green, my co-author on The Trusted Advisor.
How does your view of how you would make business (or career) decisions change if there were no “end points” and no date- or time-related objectives? What if all measures were temporary indicators on the way, rather than ‘final scores’?
What if you were aiming to create something that would go, on and on, outlasting even you, with no one point at time being the ultimate stage at which you measured your success?
This is evocative of a biological entity or a species. How does the species act if the measure of success is not a state at any period of time, but the overall health and fitness of the species to flourish and survive in whatever new environment comes along?
Bring it closer to home: What if the whole point of the enterprise (or your career) was to survive, pass on the gene pool and act as stewards for the next generation? What if your business’ goal was to give your (business) offspring a better life than you had?
These are not new thoughts: others have written about this “stewardship’ approach to running a business (for example, Peter Block (although there’s a weighting toard the moral argument in his work). Some of these ideas are also embedded in Collins’ and Porras’ book Built to Last (not built to maximize income next quarter, but built to LAST).
Viewed this way, the right measure for success of the enterprise would not be “net shareholder value” but whether or not you had “left the organization behind in better shape when you leave than when you inherited it.”
The fascinating thing is that I do hear some (usually very successful) firms talk this way, and this approach (related to the One-Firm Firm concept described in Managing the Professional Service Firm) does, in my anecdotal experience, lead to greater commitment by the members of the organization, and hence better work and service delivered to customers, and hence superior financial returns.
So, let me try and elicit reactions from you out there, who are probably ahead of me in understanding this point of view – what precsiely do you do differently if you take this perpspective? What does it mean for how you manage, deal with clients, employees and others?
Obviously, if you don’t know when the final whistle is going to blow – or if you know there isn’t going to be one – what does that do to how you live your life, your career and your business enterprise? Or as Cristian Mitreanu would ask: what does doing strategy really mean in this context?
James Bullock said:
An indirect answer to the questions you pose: “strategy” isn’t what you think. I’m mulling over a direct response, since I clearly have been influenced by the Block / Handy / Bennis / Maslow perspective on business thus ought to have a direct answer – er handy.
Particular goals, objectives, resource allocations, which of the three ways we’ll be excellent, and so on are consequences of strategy. Even deciding gross whacks of capital allocation are consequences of strategy.
Borrow from game theory. “Strategy” isn’t any particular decision, or group of decisions. It is a way to go about making a class of decisions.
I’ll illustrate with a quote from Virginia Satir about interpersonal conflict: “You can win. You can lose. Or you can learn.” So, she is suggesting a strategy – in this case a policy for making choices in interacting with other folks. Set yourself up so that win or lose, you can always learn something.
Now, is this a good strategy or bad? That’s another subject. The point is that strategy is about how you go about making decisions. “Corporate strategy” during the finance spasm was about pursuing efficient allocation of capitol, with capitol and “efficient” both defined a particular way. So, the way to ask about “strategy” from a Block-esque point of view, is to ask: “How does this POV propose we make decisions?” and “Which decisions?”
posted on July 20, 2006