When Not Having a Strategy Is Okay

By Joe Connelly

As a person develops their career from a junior position right through to executive management, one of the key requirements and differentiators as to who become the better executives are the ones who know how to create and implement strategy. In fact it’s widely accepted that the higher up an organization you ascend, the more of your available time needs to be applied to all things strategy: strategy thinking, creation and implementation. It stands to reason therefore that to be successful as an executive you must become a master of strategy. But does it? Is there another option? What if a different approach could also work – less focus on strategy and instead more focus on positive and rapid reaction to opportunities and challenges. Let’s investigate.

We know that the world is speeding up, things are happening faster and faster apparently with no end to it. Technology advances happen even faster now, and when you have a great technology, product or service you simply have to capitalize on it quicker than ever before. One of the reasons is that other greater advances quickly supersede these ones – the cycle of rapid change bounds onwards. It’s also clear that things don’t always happen through strategy alone but by market forces that many times are simply impossible to predict.

Just think of how the Internet in such a short period of time has changed not only us personally but the world as a whole. Whether it’s the advent of social networking, which is a relatively new phenomenon, or business networking through systems like LinkedIn, things have changed and will only continue to change. Apparent monopolies come and go as well. Remember back to when Yahoo! was the only real choice for Internet searches, BlackBerry the only real option for mobile business communications and Dell the dominant volume manufacturer for mobile business computing. Things change. I wonder if Yahoo!, RIM (BlackBerry) and Dell all had big, extensive strategies for how to move forward, I suspect they all did. So what happened to them and others who lost much ground along the way?

Strategy creation can be a fundamentally energizing exercise that has a significant number of benefits including bringing a disparate team together around a common cause, deciding on what opportunities fit within strategy and which do not, as well as allowing a clearer direction for large company investments. And of course there are many more reasons too numerous to mention. Without a robust strategy mayhem can prevail, efforts can become defocused at best, and smart strategy-generating competitors can make big leaps forward against you. But that’s only one side of the equation. Let’s investigate the many benefits of not having a strategy, or at least of having a very “lite strategy”.

Companies, and especially senior executives spent many hours, days and in some cases even months of effort per year related to strategy. Of course all good strategies should be documented for posterity and for wider communication purposes. In fact only through the capturing of strategy can it over time be reviewed, measured and then modified as necessary. All of this takes time that is “invested” to make sure the effort of the organization is being directed in the right way.

But since strategy creation takes so much time. In fact, I have rarely seen companies work on ways to decrease the amount of time it takes to generate strategy. Then there becomes a rising pressure for this strategy to be “the perfect strategy”. But again I don’t see companies putting a lot of effort into becoming much better at strategy creation. So, taking that into consideration, strategy is simply having a harder time of it in our increasingly fast-paced world. So much so that some people postulate that having no strategy, or (in my opinion the best option) a strategy-lite solution, is the most viable in today’s rapid-change business environment.

But if you work at a company that has clear mechanisms for strategy (format, templates, calendar, process, etc.) and you suggest moving to less strategy you might well be standing alone. Strategy might well be likened to gasoline as a fuel – very important today and will continue to be very important for a while longer, but there are some new and exciting options for those forward thinking executives, business owners and entrepreneurs who are willing to think out of the box. And with their early mover advantage many of them will become the kingpins of industry over the coming decade.

Consider these contrarian ideas of what you can do if you decide to employ less strategy in your company:
Only hire the “best” people: I often use the expression “it’s more important to have the right people on the bus rather than be on the right bus”. The rationale is that the best people will always find and be able to capitalize on opportunity no matter what market they are in. The flip side of the coin here is not having the best people, or at least some of the best people, can cause a wonderful opportunity to fail miserably.

Understanding market trends & opportunities: if this becomes a core competency of an organization and they can really interpret what is happening out in customer land in a timely manner, they position themselves to have the time to react accordingly. This means that, through necessity to move quickly in line with market requirements, strategies at best must become highly fluid.

Remove short-term returns requirements: this is more challenging since it requires investors to have a longer-term outlook and a true belief in the management team running the company. However I have personally seen many flawed decisions being taken merely to ensure that the quarterly results for the investors are achieved. When a company gets to a certain financial size, investors often look for highly consistent returns and force executives to make whatever internal decisions to facilitate this. But imagine what better decisions could be made, on occasion, if long-term enterprise value was the primary goal.

Place more emphasis on competitive solutions: if you could wave your magic wand and see all other competitive solutions that are being planned, you could potentially out-maneuver them. This might sound a bit radical, but consider how much you really study your competition. An old Chinese General named Sun Tzu might like this approach.
Of course there are other options to choose from, as well as variations of the above approaches. It’s really up to you, how visionary you consider yourself and your company, and if you are willing to build fluid, fast-reacting process for capitalizing on the continually faster changing environment. Strategy often gets a bad rap and often ends up in a cupboard in a nicely bound binder. I have even been one of those people that put the binder in their cupboard.

But what if strategy could be lighter and faster? Strategy that took a shorter time to create could be changed or adapted rapidly to market conditions, and was always exciting and energizing for all employees; Strategy that is considered an acceleration lever rather than a ball and chain; strategy that will keep you both in, and at the peak of your game. Now that’s my kind of strategy.

Joe Connelly is Founder & CEO of SalesLeadership.com, a worldwide executive and sales coaching and consulting company, with offices in Canada and Switzerland. He can be reached at: www.SalesLeadership.com; by email at joe@SalesLeadership.com; or through LinkedIn http://ca.linkedin/com/in/joeconnelly