Monday, September 3, 2018

There is No Right Answer in Strategy

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Building on my last blog, the strategy is not about perfection. In fact, there is no right strategy.

This is often difficult for senior leaders to accept because it runs contrary to their experience.

Senior leaders are usually the smartest kids in the class, the ones who always have the right answer.

They naturally enjoy the glow of being ‘right’ (synonymous with being ‘smart’). This pattern deepens as they embark on their chosen professions.

Again, they are the smartest people in the room, the ones with the answers, who confidently define what we need to do next.

Such confidence is an important element of leadership. Indeed, good leaders exude a feeling of ‘we will succeed beyond any possibility of doubt.’

Such confidence allows people to relax and get on with the job.

And so, most senior leaders have been conditioned to want to be ‘right’. But, as I said, there is no right strategy.

The past is not the future, and no amount of analysis and reflection will predict the myriad permutations the business chessboard will express.

Some people conclude therefore, that there is no point to developing strategy, that it’s best to ‘just react’ to what happens.

[For strategy geeks, in my opinion, doing so entails misunderstanding the great Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergent strategy’ concept.]

Yes, it’s true that nowadays it seems there are ‘Black Swans’ everywhere. So why bother with strategy at all?

Twas ever thus – and forever will be. You want to see Black Swans? Check out Ken Burns splendid Vietnam documentary – the episodes that focus on 1968.

There is no right strategy – but there is a right process. By reflecting deeply on what’s happened, on where we want to go, and on what’s preventing us, we better understand the chessboard, the terrain, the pieces, competitors, and our capabilities.

If our strategic planning and deployment process is simple, waste- and hassle-free, we begin the understand the important gaps in technology, customer experience, culture, capability and management systems.

And we take action, we strengthen our weak points, we plug the gaps, we prepare.

In effect, we are projecting our nervous system in to the future, so that when and if the Black Swan appears, we’re not paralyzed. We’re alert, focused and confident. “Folks, this isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before…”

Sound strategic planning, therefore, builds fortitude and tenacity. This is most obvious in sports, where Black Swans are not uncommon. Nobody can predict which way the ball will bounce, or what the score is after the first ten minutes.

But is you have a clear plan and a good understanding of the terrain, competition, your capabilities and have worked on your gaps, you’re much more likely to recover from whatever fate throws your way.

Our articulated Purpose and strategy, therefore, should be clear and simple, as should our strategic planning process.

Nimbleness is of the essence. We should be able to quickly align and deploy, and just as quickly realign and redeploy.

Modular plans, visual management, stand-up meetings, brevity, a shared simple problem solving method are important elements of agility. (How does all this fit together? My books are essentially movies about it, pardon the plug.)

Corporate planning in many large organizations is, sadly, the opposite of nimble. The following adjectives come to mind: ponderous, heavy, boring, wasteful, difficult, confusing…

By adhering to a heavy, formal annual planning process, we are, in effect, projecting our punches. A droll competitor might wait till we publish our strategy, and then the day after, change theirs…

There is no right answer in strategy, but there is a right process.

Best wishes,


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