Is Strategy Purely An Exercising In Thinking?
Is strategy an analytical exercise where one collects useful data, crunches this data, finds where the opportunities lie, and then selects the most promising opportunity? Is it merely a matter of ‘scanning the landscape of opportunity’ and selecting the most suitable opportunity? Put differently, is the job of the strategist to select which table to play at?
It occurs to me that this is pretty much the view articulated by Michael Porter – the person who really put strategy on the corporate landscape. Arguably, it is also what Tony Hsieh is getting at when he writes the following in his book Delivering Happiness (bolding mine):
I noticed so many similarities between poker and business that I started making a list of the lessons I learned from playing poker that could also be applied to business:
Evaluating Market Opportunities
- Table selection is the most important decision you can make.
- It’s okay to switch tables if you discover it’s too hard to win at your table.
- If there are too many competitors (some irrational or inexperienced), even if you’re the best it’s a lot harder to win.
Is There More To Strategy Than Table Selection?
There might be. It may not be as simple at selecting the right table. Let’s get back to Tony Hsieh, he writes (bolding mine):
- Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them.
- Figure out the game when the stakes aren’t high.
This is great as far as it goes. As a strategist you can sit in your ‘war-room’ crunch the ‘big data’, create a map of the opportunity landscape. And then select the right table to play at based on the consideration of two factors: the opportunity potential at a specific table, and your competence in playing the game that is played at that table.
Is this all there is to the game of strategy making? Put differently, now that the table has been selected, can the strategist/s hand over the baton to those who excel at execution-implementation: playing the game that is played at the chosen table? For me the answer is “No”. Why?
I invite you to consider that what is so is always in flux: change/flow/becoming/birth-death-birth characterise the world in which we find ourselves. One of the central assertions of complexity science is that a small intervention at the right place at the right time can move a stable system over the change and into a radically different state. If you grasp this then you get that there is space to act, to shape the game so as to increase your likelihood of winning.
The Work of Strategy Includes The Work Involved in ‘Tilting The Table’
If the first part of strategy can be likened to ‘selecting the right table’, then I say the second and vital part of strategy involves the work that is involved in ’tilting the table’. What do I mean by ’tilting the table’? I mean acting on the world – orchestrating the elements of a situation – so as to generate the desired outcome. Notice, here we are in the realms of implementation (execution).
So what levers are available to the strategist who seeks to ’tilt the table’? Let’s answer that question by imagining a scenario. Let’s assume that as the strategist you have selected the digital table to play at. How might you go about ’tilting the table’ so as to increase the odds of success? I can think of the following levers:
- Actions that destabilise the existing power structure in your organisation e.g. making people changes and shifting the balance of power between business units, functions, products etc;
- Actions you take to ‘de-stabilise’ your key competitor/s e.g. luring away their key people;
- Who you choose to lead the digital transformation programme;
- Governance structure and rules of engagement;
- Resources (money, people, information, tools) that you make available to the digital transformation programme;
- The timescale you set for the shift to digital to occur and the associated metrics for gauging movement along the digital path; and
- Actions you take to make the shift toward digital necessary and attractive e.g. making promotion dependent on digital skills-expertise-projects, and funding digital education-training.
You get the idea. The levers that you can identify are limited only by your imagination, your creativity. And some will have more leverage than others.
As a strategist, is your work finished once you have done that which you can to ’tilt the table’ in favour of your team, your organisation? It occurs to me that the answer, again, is no.
Strategy Involves An Ongoing Attunement-Adjustment to The Facts On The Ground
Given the dynamic nature of the world in which we live and in which the game of business is played out, it occurs to me that strategy making cannot be a one-off exercise. It occurs to me that effective strategy, in a dynamic context, is alive. What do I mean by that? What is the core characteristic of living organisms? They are attuned to their environment. Why? Because attainment is essential for timely adjustment to occur; adjustment promotes survival.
What does this mean for the strategist? Here are the words of Tony Hsieh in Delivering Happiness (bolding is mine):
- You need to adjust your style of play throughout the night as the dynamics of the game change. Be flexible.
I leave you with the following thought: the effective strategist is one who not only has experience of the arena but is in the arena where the game is being played. And it is this involvement and mastery of the game, along with reflection and creativity, that allows him/her to be effective in strategising. I get that this is unconventional.
Thanks for listening, I invite you to share your thoughts-experience on the matter.