Recently, I read about the main reasons that why a well-developed business strategy fails (it might have been this HBR article but not sure) and among many of the reasons, there was one that really resonated with me and have kept my mind busy for long. It goes something like this: "Show me a firm that its strategy is formulated by non doers and I'll show you a firm that fails at achieving many of its goals." I'm not doing a justice to how it was actually articulated in that article, but nevertheless the message was something similar to what I wrote. The point is, if operational aspects of a strategy are not considered as the strategy is being formulated, then the possibility of success is very small, if none. Why is that? And more immortally, if you are working in the strategy function of a company, or you are one of those very well-paid strategy consultants - that many of MBA graduates would aspire to be - then what can you learn from the above mentioned statement?
Over the years in my strategy and operations career, I have witnessed the two sides of the coin; failure and success of a strategy in real-life:
Failure: Those $1M to $5M projects with The Big 3 consulting firms, and the little army of junior consultants, engagement managers, and the partners that never leave your company and lend themselves well to the juicy gossip of the hallways are unfortunately too familiar projects to many of us. We also have heard about the downward spiral image of the "MBA-style" planning that many of the most successful companies of our time are avoiding at all costs (if you don't believe me read How Google Works, or better yet, go to the slide 28 of Eric Schmidt's PPT on slideshare). Why is that? Because those strategies are developed by consultants, behind the doors of the C-Suit floor, usually considered as not-to-mention projects with secret, albeit cute code names. More importantly, the doers and operation managers never see the light of that fat, glossy walk-through deck until it falls on their desk for execution. Meanwhile, all the doers have already moved on to another set of problems they need to deal with and don't even care about the well-thought solution that has been articulated in the strategy document. Even if they care, they are so buried under all the operational issues that they have to deal with (and believe me, when you work at operations there is always a fire drill issue and that's just how it is) that they don't have the time and patience to read through and understand the genius of the proposed strategy. So it is not surprising that many people cringe when they hear the world "consultant" and would try to get as far, mentally and even physically, as possible away from the strategy team and the project. When it comes to the execution, they scramble and do what is too familiar to them already and can be executed in the shortest time frame and that's simply how the strategy fails.
Success: How many times we've heard of non business people who actually made it big and drove a new venture to unimaginable success? Why would they succeed although in reality they are nor formally educated in the delicate matter of business strategy, nor that they have had the money to afford hiring consultants for $1M to $5M! They succeed because the strategists are also the doers. Simple as that! They get crystal clear about what they want to do, and they just do it. No c-suit floor and no big, glossy walk-through decks and that means even if they don't have a good strategy, they can iterate, refine and act. When they finally get to the most suited strategic direction, by design, they can focus on small operational issues, work around them, and bulldoze through until they arrive at the destination.
So, the lesson of the story is not that everybody must form a small company to succeed (which is actually the storm-force behind the start-up wave in recent years). Nor is that all big companies need to chop down their team into small start-up like entities so that they can protect the "so-called" start-up culture and doer attitude. It also doesn't mean that the big consulting firms and all others in the noble profession of strategy consulting need to pack their bags and go home. The lesson is that strategy must be operationally informed. And that means strategy development process needs to be refined to allow for operations to inform the process. The "how" is of course the million dollar question that is rarely answered and worth the time of us who are in the strategy profession. How one does that, is the story of another day-dreaming of mine. Stay tuned and I will write about it next time.
Until then, look for operationally informed strategists, They are a rare gem of a bread of strategists and if you found one, hold on to him/her and never let go! You will thank me later!
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