Tag Archives: The Art of War

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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DOES YOUR STRATEGY ECHO THAT OF WINNIE THE POOH?

christopher robin and edward bearIt 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.

Battle_of_Trafalgar_Poster_1805At 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

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Twitter @cowanglobal

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