CORPORATE STRATEGY – NOT A NEW IDEA BUT NOT AS OLD AS YOU THOUGHT

At a recent speaking engagement I was comparing how new Corporate Strategy is when compared to Military Strategy or the strategy of training for performance sport. I was later asked if I could write a short piece about the birth of Corporate Strategy. Happy to oblige, here it is.

corporate-strategyStrategy as a concept has been around for centuries, for millennia. The first published thoughts on strategy are commonly believed to be the works of Sun Tzu and Wu Tzu from 2500 years ago. Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is still essential reading in military academies around the world and should probably be required reading for business leaders too.

For 2300 years the principles of strategy, of formally identifying what success looks like and planning a route to achieve it was left to the military. That is until the early 1800s when ‘pedestrianists’ – early race walkers – took to planning their training, albeit in somewhat basic format. In the late 19th century athletes took up formal planning and gradually the idea of developing strategies for the training of sportspeople evolved and developed into the science (and art) of today.

Meanwhile, the post-industrial revolution world awaited ‘strategy’ in any formal sense. Managers and leaders thought and planned after a fashion but with little genuine cohesion and it was not until the 1950s that the term ‘strategy’ was regularly applied in a business context.

Then, in 1965, along came H Igor Ansoff and the business world would never be the same again. Ansoff’s publication ‘Corporate Strategy’ introduced the term, new thinking and the formulation and implementation of ‘strategic management’ and suddenly corporate strategy became a requirement for all businesses, large and small.

Ansoff stated that strategy was, ‘a rule for making decisions.’ He distinguished between objectives, which set the goals, and strategy, which set the path to the goals; something many modern businesses have forgotten. ‘Corporate Strategy’ also stated firmly that ‘structure follows strategy’ – something else a significant minority (majority?) of modern managers and leaders overlook.

Ansoff flagged up the important issue that has troubled formulation of strategy ever since; most decisions are made inside a framework of limited resources. Whatever size the company is, strategic decisions mean making choices between alternative resource commitments.

The process defined by Ansoff typically unfolds thus:

  • Mission Statement and Objectives – describe the company’s mission, vision and values and define measurable strategic (and financial) objectives.
  • Environmental scanning – the gathering of internal and external information analysing the company, its industry and the wider environment (e.g. the 5 Forces of Competition, SWOT and PEST analyses, etc.).
  • Strategy formulation – competitive advantage, core competence, corporate thinking, ‘inside out and outside in’.
  • Strategy implementation – communicating the strategy, organising resources and motivating teams to deliver.
  • Evaluation and control – measure, compare, adjust.

Since Ansoff, writing about Corporate Strategy has grown to become an industry all of its own and, like all industries, it is populated by the good, the bad and the indifferent. The growth of the internet has seen a boom in ‘off the shelf’ strategy templates for business. For the individual seeking text books on the topic it is now a case of caveat emptor. For the businessman seeking a quick fix download it is a world populated with poor options and little else.

Strategy should be personal; borrowed templates will never deliver quality. There are no short cuts; getting strategy right and, beyond that, of quality, is hard work.

But then, it was ever so. As Sun Tzu wrote 2500 years ago; “Strategy is the great work of the organisation.”

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2016

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