Book Review: Solving the Strategy Delusion

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“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”  Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company

I don’t usually review books here but a book recently came to me which I found very compelling.  It is on a subject which I would normally find dry and uninteresting but it makes that subject….strategy…. come to life in a way that I have not seen before.  It does this by taking a new approach, one that is much more comprehensive and holistic than normal.  Specifically, it merges its expansive and compelling ideas on strategy per se with the one thing which makes strategy possible or impossible to execute: culture.

Why Culture Matters:

My favorite strategy quote is from Peter Drucker, the famous Austrian management guru who lived most of his life in California:  “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  And so it does:  the best laid plans die like seed sprinkled on rocky ground when newly created strategies meet dysfunctional organizational cultures, incapable of bringing those plans to life.  In this book, Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper explain this and many more things in a way that can only be done when their expertise extends well beyond strategy, which is patently the case here.

Let’s begin with some alarming statistics from the book;  it seems that from 70 to 90% of strategic initiatives fail.  This is a staggering number.  Is culture the only culprit?  The way I interpret the meaning of culture, as “the way we do things around here”, it covers most of the reasons the authors put forward for this pitiful track record of strategy implementation. But well before such strategic plans are brought forward to the implementation phase, culture affects the way in which they are created.  This can doom them from the start.

How to Create a Strategy Doomed to Fail:

As the authors point out, a good way to join the 70-90% who fail at this is to use an “inside-out” methodology to strategy formulation; it is an approach which emphasizes the illusion that the organization already has most of the information and resources in-house with which to make its plans, and thereby ignores what the customer wants, and the fact that the world and markets are changing faster than ever before.  Into this mix, blend a rigid timeline: the once-a -year “strategic planning retreat”, a ritual which many probably dread. Be sure to use only certain top level executives for this role, after all they comprise the sum total of all knowledge about what the plan should be, don’t they?  Once birthed, give the plan to mid-managers to implement and blame them if it doesn’t work!

A Better Approach:

Of course, while customer situations like the one Henry Ford refers to in the initial quote here do emerge from time to time (did we all know we had to get an iPod and switch to digital music before Steve Jobs convinced us we could not live without it?), under most circumstances organizations of any kind ignore customer desires at their peril.  Plus the pace of change is such that the annual strategic retreat needs to be replaced by continual “sensing” of market needs. Leaving out mid managers (those who have survived waves of “rightsizing”) and even front line employees in making the plans is also a recipe for failure: if you want them to put their hearts and minds into execution of the plan they have to be part of its formulation. Many of them have far more contact with customers, for example, than C-suite executives: who better to tap when one wants to “sense” the market?

Of course, this isn’t easy, but the authors give us extensive advice as to what to do and how to do it.  Language plays a big role in all this:  it is how plans will be communicated, hopefully inspiring everyone to get on board and enthusiastically work together to achieve them.  It also reveals so well what the organization sees as its raison d’être:  saying that a company’s main mission in life is “market share”, as they point out, is meaningless to customers…saying that its mission is to create furniture which is simple and beautiful and so inexpensive that many, many people can afford it, well that is exciting and is exactly the reason for Ikea’s worldwide success.   In fact one of the best aspects to this book is the inclusion of lists of widely used phrases which are used to describe visions, missions, values and so on…so many of which have little or nothing to do with customers and/or are simply platitudes designed to impress shareholder readers of Annual Reports.  (Speaking of shareholders, I would add that not making “shareholder value” as the #1 goal of the company but instead focusing on the very things which will actually achieve that goal, pleasing customers and creating a work culture in which people are far more likely to engage, is a far, far better approach:  Whole Foods Market, the world’s biggest and most successful organic grocer, does exactly that).  It is one thing to prioritize the wrong values, but quite another to promote behavioral values which are not lived;  I certainly agree with Stigter and Cooper that, too often, high performers who violate carefully nurtured values are tolerated and even rewarded.  As they tell us, values can be very negative inside an organization when they are unenforced.  Yes: better to be at zero (no values statements) than minus 50 (empty, unlived and unenforced values statements).

One of my favorite ideas in this book is that we need people who “Want”, “Know” and “Can” make strategy (and anything else) happen. This applies to all levels from C-suite to line workers, and is why good recruiters are worth their weight in gold: nothing happens if these three conditions are not met inside the individual. This is highly relevant not just to strategy but also to the field of engagement:  so little is written about it, only about creating the right culture in which engagement will flourish, and it is good to see it covered in such detail here. A strategic plan…or a culture… can be great but some do not engage: they don’t want to, for some reason, or are not capable, or do not see how what they do fits into the whole. Yes, management can be partly to blame for this (especially the third reason), but in some cases, even many cases, individuals fail to make the choice the organization wants and needs them to make.  No wonder that the very best companies, like Google, spend so much time and resources interviewing potential recruits.

Another idea is that things are done so much better in teams; this book provides extensive guidance for helping teams create their own versions of the overall vision, or example, so that they feel ownership, and the probability of them truly committing to that vision is greatly increased. At the same time, one must have one’s eyes open for the individuals with the “outside the box” ideas……what Steve Jobs called “mavericks” (not to be confused with “self serving loners”).  This is the fine balance between “we” and “me” which only the very best organizations understand and carefully create.

There are many more things to discover in this book, which I greatly enjoyed, as I think you can see. It is refreshing to see strategy and culture blended in this way; in fact the more I read, the more it became clear that in reality, they are not separate “things” at all;  ideally they are just different aspects of one integrated process.  I hope those of you who read this review will take a look at the valuable ideas in this book and allow them to make you a better strategist.  _______________________________________________________________________

Disclosure: Professor Sir Cary Cooper, co-author of the book reviewed in this post, is also co-author of David’s two books, Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times and The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE which are available worldwide from Macmillan, Amazon, etc. in print and digital format.  Visit David’s website for all things engagement, culture and emotional intelligence at work:  www.davidbowlesphd.com

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