In these unusual times, we need flexible approaches to business strategy more than ever. Strategy is commonly viewed as a roadmap outlining how to get from A to B. Typically created by the upper echelons of an organisation, “having a strategy” means that there is an agreed masterplan which co-ordinates organisational efforts and the use of resources. The strategy plan provides a coherent set of guidance that directs how operational decisions and actions should deliver desired long-term outcomes. Refreshed periodically, this “cascading” planned approach to strategy is intuitively appealing for the order and control it promises to organisational leaders.
The practical challenges of realising benefits from a planned approach to strategy are widely reported, however. Issues include detachment in planning activities from the realities of internal and external contexts, leading to unrealistic objectives and targets; a lack of interest or awareness of the strategy from the majority of organisational stakeholders; and a failure to adapt strategy as changing circumstances render plans irrelevant.
These are not new critiques. Since the earliest days of strategy as a formal business function, the “implementation problem”, where carefully formulated plans fail to materialise into results, has been reported as a recurring issue for business strategists. And this is not exclusively a modern organisational challenge either. In the 19th century, Prussian military theorist Helmuth Van Moltke famously observed, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
For the contemporary strategist, the issues with a planned strategy approach have been further exacerbated by an environment in flux. On a grand scale, events of 2020 have plunged governments and organisations into circumstances for which few had prepared. The disrupting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on international flows, trade, and travel are continuing to unfold, with no clear end in sight. As all aspects of life and work are having to adjust to a “new normal,” how should the theory and practice of strategy in organisational life adapt also?
Firstly, it seems that the highly disrupted context in which we are living necessitates dissolving traditional, exclusive boundaries of strategy work in organisations. The acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous), first coined to describe the diverse, disrupted landscape suddenly facing US military strategists at the end of the Cold War, now describes the context for organisational strategy work. In a VUCA setting, accessing a wide range of data sources improves the likelihood of finding effective strategic solutions to emergent challenges. In brief, strategy is more likely to be fit for purpose when a wide range of stakeholders and business intelligence supplement senior manager perspectives in identifying, shaping, and agreeing what matters most to an organisation.
Secondly, there is a need to approach strategy as a flexible, adaptable process in which decisions, objectives, and initiatives are continually reviewed for contextual fit and value to the organisation. As a “permanent beta” process, strategy becomes ever-morphing, rather than holding fast, in the pursuit of favourable organisational outcomes. Strategic analysis—informed by data from a wide range of internal and external sources—is updated frequently. New insights arising about current or emergent challenges and opportunities are used to identify required adjustments to strategic priorities, focal initiatives, or even long-term aims. By involving stakeholders in the process of evaluation, frequent changes to strategy are understood to be acts of effective governance rather than failures of leadership vision and decision-making. The latest strategic thinking then regulates the flow of organisational activities, delivering optimal outcomes in attunement with shifting circumstances.
High engagement of stakeholders delivers implementation benefits too. Through learning from involvement, individuals and teams know what to do and have a sense of ownership in strategy outcomes, leading to the realisation of any necessary changes with an economy of effort. The strategy process itself flows, fed by diverse information, constant review, and the collective wisdom of those involved to maintain relevance, effectiveness, and organisational commitment.
A flexible process approach does not remove the ultimate responsibility of the top leadership team when it comes to strategic decisions—formal power remains. Rather, a flexible process approach offers new means by which the relevance and completeness of strategic decisions might be maintained, and the organisation readied for implementation work. And by endorsing and exemplifying flexible strategy practices, leaders might unlock the adaptive potential required to sustain their organisations through these unprecedented and challenging times.
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