Thursday, July 7, 2011

Want to work on strategy? Don't call it strategy

I used to work at a company that struggled with strategy, as many companies do. The leadership team would issue vague aspirations at the beginning of the year about producing software better, faster, and cheaper, and would forget about strategy until the next end-of-year planning cycle. However, there were strong ownership issues around strategy, and anyone outside the leadership team who used the word "strategy" found themselves with some explaining to do. The "strategy of no strategy" may sound like a zen-like approach to life but it's no way to run a company in a very competitive environment.

I decided that the way around this problem was to pull together some like-minded individuals and develop an innovation strategy, but simply not call it by that name. We would call it an "engagement approach" or "marketing meta-analysis" or something similarly vague that wouldn't hit any leader's hot button, but the content would contain a real strategy. We worked on it for a little while but the business sponsor of the effort left to pursue a developmental opportunity and was replaced by someone who wasn't with the program. I left the company a little while later.

I was reminded of this incident after reading Richard Rumelt's excellent The Perils of Bad Strategy. Rumelt's describes the hallmarks of bad strategy, including (1) failure to face the problem, (2) mistaking goals for strategy, (3) bad strategic objectives, and (4) fluff. The descriptions of each will be familiar to anyone who's seen bad corporate strategies. Highly recommended reading, but I wonder if any strategy-impaired leadership teams will recognize their own so-called strategies in the descriptions.

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