When I was a MBA student, I often wondered. What is this mystical creature called “successful strategy deployment”? To me a first answer came wrapped in a tiny book: “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu (Sun Tse or any one of a hundred different ways to spell it in our alphabet). Strategy is not mentioned in it as such, but this tiny book of 13 chapters, is considered to be among the first treatise on the subject (still recommended in a lot of organizations considered with strategy as a “must read”).
In the translation I got, was a short explanation on the structure of the text. The gist is, to treat the entire book as a “zhuàn“ or whole and not as separate disciplines/ issues. That really kicked off my understanding of strategy and fuelled my interest over the last 20 years.
Just as in current strategy concepts we have therefore a unity of objectives or strategic deltas and an agile execution based on a constant flow of information. Furthermore, Sun Tzu tells us not to blindly follow objectives, but to tackle the challenges connected to your strategic deltas. I must say this was revealing. We all know the effect of a good idea being filed and not executed as it is usually not that easy to weave great ideas into a company’s existing fabric of workings and priorities. So when it comes to deciding what to focus on, we tend to ask: “What is more important? Operations or strategy?” The answer is sure enough: Both!
Or as Sun Tzu would put it: all 13 chapters are engaged in an endless dance.
Same basic concept is put forward 3000 years later in agile strategy concepts. But how is this really working? Can a company really ensure this “dance” does not end in people trotting on each other’s feet? Or losing touch? Or creating chaotic patterns? In a ballroom this is ensured by music and a certainty (hopefully) what dance is on. Music and consent about a basic set of patterns (rules) are creating alignment. In Sun Tzu’s world this is done mainly by an officer’s leadership. And alignment is derived from a mixture of understanding and discipline.
But what is the basic function of an officer? To break down a complex strategy into a number of single actions for execution. The priority issue is solved by an officer’s endless stream of decision what to do next or where to focus. This is getting awfully hard in our days, as the orchestra is picking up the pace.
So breaking down strategy into small bits and execute what is needed is THE KEY to deploying it successfully. And while deploying it, it is wise to make room for changes as more and more information is gained, re-evaluated or simply better understood. Therefore, strategy is a process – just as Mintzberg said. And today more than ever adaptability is a key capability of a successful organisation. But you need me to tell you this – for sure! We all know what is truly needed: Efficient alignment. So the question we really talk about is how to get it?
In my experience five basic steps will get you there:
- Define strategic deltas or objectives
- Derive the challenges your organisation need to conquer
- Decide which of the challenges you need to solve in the next period
- Empower your officers to execute by assigning the necessary resources
(Those in a more non-military environment may surely substitute officers with team leads)
- Constantly ensure necessary alignment regarding challenges
So all in all strategy is not that complex. Only remember to you break it down into bits and as long as you ensure alignment all the way you will at least not get lost during deployment.
So basically just treat the strategy process as a whole or as Sun Tzu said, a “zhuàn“ and you will get what you planned for – good or bad.
by Robert J. Schiermeier