It is probably not something that has occurred to many business owners and executives but, nonetheless, it is fair to say that when it comes to strategic planning, the vast majority are mimicking Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.
Let me explain…..
But, before I do, a quick history of strategy. 2500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote about the concept and application of military strategy in ‘The Art of War.’ Then, for 2300 years or so strategy developed almost exclusively as a military tool. In the 19th Century sports people recognised the value of planned training and started exploring the concept of strategic planning, developing into the finely honed tool it has become for today’s world class performers.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century businesses dabbled with planning and the mid-20th Century business even employed an early form of ‘strategic management’ however it was not until the release of H. Igor Ansoff’s ‘Corporate Strategy’ in 1965 than business began to properly embrace strategy.
Since then, many business owners and executives have developed and delivered strategy but have failed to grasp one of, if not the, primary reason(s) for having strategy. Strategy should be about the art/science of seeking and gaining a competitive advantage.
The military recognise this. Leading sports performers and their coaches recognise this. The majority in business either do not recognise or choose to ignore this.*
Instead they prefer to employ the ‘Insanity Planning’ method of developing strategy. And gaining competitive advantage means avoiding the insane.
- Insanity Planning is doing the same thing today and tomorrow that you did yesterday and expecting a different result.
- Insanity Planning is doing the same thing as your competition and expecting to beat them.
- Insanity Planning assumes the competitive environment does not change and expects the plans of yesterday will yield the same results tomorrow.
And modern business loves Insanity Planning. Businesses seek templates of strategies developed by others; copy the plans of others expecting different results. Such insanity should have no place in the seeking of competitive advantage; of excellence; of high performance.
Quality strategy was, is and always will be personalised. Having the same (or similar) strategy as everyone else will not deliver competitive advantage.
Of course, historically, there have been times when the military have forgotten this important point in much the same way as business has. It usually takes a leader to come along and put in place strategy which avoids the insane to change thinking and remind people of the insanity of what they were doing. In hindsight, the new strategy might even look like common sense.
Such a leader was Horatio Nelson. In 1805, in the build up to the Battle of Trafalgar he recognised Insanity Planning for what it was (is). Had he not, I might be writing this article in French or Spanish.
At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships came up against a superior combined French and Spanish fleet of 33. The conventional, accepted strategy of the day was to line the ships of the two opposing forces up parallel to each other and, effectively, start shooting until a winner emerged.
Outgunned, Nelson recognised this template for strategy employed by everyone else for the insanity it was. He knew that if he engaged the opposition in this way the odds of winning were extremely long. Insanely long.
So he chose to employ a personalised strategy which would give his fleet competitive advantage; which avoided the insane. As the enemy lined up according to the accepted, shared, strategy template of the day, Nelson chose to sail towards them in single file and at right angles to their straight line. He evened the odds, caused confusion amongst his foe and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nelson recognised the need to personalise the strategy to HIS goal; HIS resources; HIS (and his sailors’) skills and abilities; HIS definition of success. In doing so, he gained competitive advantage.
But, I hear you ask, what does any of this have to do with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh?
To explain that, I will quote Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne:
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”
When it comes to strategic planning for business who do you mirror?
Are you an Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson or a Winnie the Pooh?
*Just a small selection of the research to support this statement:
- 84% of a sample of 3543 companies confuse Mission and Vision. 64% thought Mission and Vision are the same thing. 91% lacked concise Vision. (Forbes 2009).
- 61% of CEOs believe inflexible corporate structure hampers successful delivery of strategy. 82% of companies design structure ahead of strategy. (Forbes 2009).
- 47% of CEOs say their strategies are better described as matching industry best practices and delivering operational imperatives; in other words, just playing along. (McKinsey 2011)
- 87% of companies plan strategy using only intelligence that they share with their competitors. (McKinsey 2011).
- 79% of Company Executives do not understand the language of strategy yet still use it. (Business Review 2007).
Article first published July 2013.
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2013, 2016