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Mar 17, 2017
Many people claim that strategy is dead - overcome by the conditions of change and uncertainty. They prefer agility and quick response. But the obituary for strategy is premature - and is based on a series of false assumptions about strategy.
We outline how strategy is both necessary and valuable in conditions of uncertainty and change.
A PREMATURE OBITUARY?
I’m bemused by the repetitive announcements that “strategy is dead” and has no place in
our rapidly changing and uncertain business environment. Pundits claim that:
- it’s too slow and laborious
- the outcomes are irrelevant in an uncertain and changing environment, and
- organisations prefer to simply respond quickly as conditions and customer
Despite the fact there is wide agreement that strategic skills are a core requirement for
leaders of the future (1,2), there is a popular belief that our organisations should simply
focus on being agile as a way of coping with current conditions (3,4).
My belief is that this is a potentially dangerous view, and is based on three ﬂawed
assumptions about strategy:
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Dr Norman Chorn
WHY ARE THESE ASSUMPTIONS FLAWED?
Strategy is different to planning
There is frequent confusion between ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’, and the terms are often
Planning is the process whereby we set a speciﬁc goal or objective ahead of the time, and
then develop a series of steps and milestones to achieve that objective. It is generally
useful in a shorter time horizon when the conditions and constraints are relatively well
known. An example is a plan to move your ofﬁce to a new address on a particular date.
Strategy, on the other hand, is an ongoing process whereby we consider the position of
the organisation within its operating environment. It is ﬂuid and characterised by a series of
aims, rather than speciﬁc goals. An example is a game of chess, where a move by either
player causes the entire chessboard to change and requires a rethink of your position.
Strategy is NOT planning. It is not concerned with a prediction of the future nor the setting
of speciﬁc and pre-determined objectives. Instead, it is a continual learning process where
we seek to understand the system of which the organisation is a part, and the leverage
points that we might inﬂuence.
There is real payoff in developing strategy
The argument is that the strategy process is time consuming and laborious - and that the
results are somewhat ineffective in the rapidly changing environment.
Pundits argue that a better allocation of corporate resource is a series of short, sharply
focused projects and tactical responses to the changing environment.
But the research and empirical evidence shows otherwise. A recently published research
paper by McKinsey across several industry sectors (5) shows that this form of short-
termism is actually more costly to organisations. Organisations engaged in regular
strategic conversations produce superior results across a wide range of metrics, including
proﬁtability, growth and innovation (6).
Disturbingly, evidence suggests that the trend to short-termism is increasing as
organisations grow increasingly dissatisﬁed with their traditional approaches to planning.
However, even those organisations with a prevailing short-term operational focus can
beneﬁt by beginning a strategic conversation that engages a longer term perspective (7).
Organisations require more than responsiveness and agility
This is an extension of the previous argument - ie: that a more productive approach is to
focus on being responsive to changes in the environment and customer requirements.
I’m not suggesting that organisations should ignore the shifts in external conditions and
customer needs. However, the problem is that many organisations become so action-
oriented and reactive to these changes, that it drives out strategic conversation and
longer-term thinking. Action is the enemy of thought in these situations.
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Again, the evidence from research is revealing. By describing organisations in terms of
their dominant operating style, we can identify the following four styles of organisation (8):
Numerous studies with different markets, products and organisational sizes have found
consistently that Reactors underperform the other types in terms of growth, proﬁtability,
sustainability and value (9,10,11,12).
My argument is clear: Organisations who favour fast response and reaction over well
thought through strategy, are not likely to be rewarded with consistent growth and
SO, WHAT’S THE POINT OF STRATEGY?
Why should you spend the time and effort to develop strategy in this rapidly changing and
uncertain environment? I point to three factors:
Predominant focus on exploring and exploiting new market and product
Predominant focus on holding on and defending their traditional way of doing
Dual focus - majority focus on defending their traditional core business, and a
secondary focus on exploring new opportunities
Predominant emphasis on responding and reacting to opportunities without an
overarching strategic focus.
© Norman Chorn 2017 • firstname.lastname@example.org • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 3
Understand and make sense
I recall my experience watching the ﬁrst Gulf War as it was covered by CNN in 1990. This
was the ﬁrst time people were able to watch war scenes “live” as bombs landed and
planes took off from aircraft carriers.
But for many, it was a confusing experience. It was difﬁcult to ﬁgure out what was really
happening and why - we were too close to the action with no overarching narrative of what
was happening! Only through the discussions by commentators and experts were we able
to understand and make sense of all the vivid action.
Strategy provides the overarching narrative inside the organisation. It provides meaning
and a rationale for the various actions and initiatives being undertaken. Furthermore, it
ensures that the patterns of actions are aligned in some way with the broad aims of the
organisation. Because leaders cannot make all the decisions on a daily basis, strategy
provides some guidance for those actions and decisions that simply “emerge" from the
organisation in day-to-day activity.
Prepare for uncertainty
Predicting the future is usually risky in an uncertain environment. This makes conventional
planning much less effective. Strategy, on the other hand, is concerned with understanding
the system of which the organisation is a part.
By understanding the system and the interdependencies of its key elements, it is possible
to determine a range of possible futures for how the system will unfold into the future.
Strategy doesn’t seek to predict the future. Instead, it recognises that the organisation
faces a range of alternative futures due to the uncertainty in the environment.
Once we understand the range of alternative futures faced by the organsation, we can
then deﬁne the capabilities required to cope with these futures. In this way, strategy assists
in preparing for uncertainty by building resilience - the capabilities necessary to operate
across a range of possible futures.
Enhance resources through convergence
One of the earlier and perhaps most important contributions to our understanding of
strategy was made by the Prussian general Claus von Clausewitz (13). “On War”,
published in 1832 after his death, outlines many signiﬁcant principles of strategy.
Von Clausewitz argues that a successful “attack” strategy is dependent upon the
convergence of resources - an aligning and focusing of capabilities and effort around a
broad philosophy or aim. This convergence enhances the effectiveness of the resources
and leverages overall capability.
We understand this principle as the beneﬁt of focus, particularly when one has limited
resources. However, the point being made is that convergence is enabled by way of a well
thought through and internally consistent strategy. This strategy embraces both an
understanding of the system within which the organisation operates, as well as an
internally consistent philosophy of how the organisation will interact with this system. More
© Norman Chorn 2017 • email@example.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 4
about this later. The key point, however, is that strategy enables a signiﬁcant enhancement
of organisational capability through the appropriate convergence of its resources (14).
EFFECTIVE STRATEGY IN UNCERTAINTY
So, how do we achieve successful strategy in these complex and uncertain conditions?
I suggest three processes to assist in improving the use and effectiveness of strategy in
Build a rich picture
The process begins with the development of a systems-view of the organisation’s
operating environment. This is the environment that impacts on the organisation and its
A “rich picture” outlines the various elements in this system and how they interact with one
another. It also describes the points at which the organisation interacts with the system,
and the nature of the various leverage points within the system.
An example would show an organisation and its relationship to its customers, factors that
inﬂuence demand, relevant legislation, suppliers, competitors, stakeholders, processes for
converting inputs into outputs, and the nature of the challenge or problem being addressed
by the organisation.
The rich picture produced by this process is an important input into the second process -
the strategic conversation.
© Norman Chorn 2017 • firstname.lastname@example.org • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 5
Start a strategic conversation
Strategy can be viewed as a conversation that takes place though the organisation. As
with any good conversation, understanding increases with greater participation and it
beneﬁts from the diversity of perspectives and opinions.
Strategic conversations can be thought of as a system with several elements, including the
• An overall aim articulated by leadership - eg: “We need to prepare our organisation
for the uncertainties and change in our future environment”. The ‘rich picture’ is used
to frame the resulting conversation
• Presentations and discussions by leadership to ‘frame’ the conversation - e.g.: “We
need to consider the impact of proposed new legislation, emerging competition and
the changes in customer preferences”. (These presentations and discussions are a
key component to establish the boundaries and to focus the emerging conversation)
• Executive blogs and posts that provide input and perspective to the conversation.
(These help to continuously focus the discussions)
• Online discussions and forums that allow people to contribute ideas, ask questions
and share intel
• Knowledge sharing through a (preferably online) resource library
• Workshops and meetings for people to identify trends, drivers of change and key
uncertainties in the environment
• Informal and formal discussions between staff, peers and supervisors.
Strategic conversations are an important input for the third process - the use of scenario
thinking and planning.
Use scenario thinking
The use of scenarios is a way of ﬂipping an issue that causes logjams in many strategy
discussions. The logjam is often caused by an argument that rages about the nature of the
future - “what are the future conditions into which we are trying to set our strategy”?
Because we cannot agree on a precise enough deﬁnition of the future, we often set broad
and vague plans that provide little guidance for explicit actions and initiatives. This is a
common failing of plans.
Scenario thinking changes the question from “what will the future be?” to “what will
we do if the following futures occur?”
© Norman Chorn 2017 • email@example.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 6
Two distinctions are important here:
a) We no longer think about only one future - we recognise an organisation faces
multiple futures in an uncertain environment
b) We are no longer concerned about predicting the future - we focus on the
capabilities required to thrive in the alternative futures. This is the operational
deﬁnition of building resilience in an organisation - ie: the ability to operate within a
wider zone of tolerance.
By using the insights gathered from the strategic conversation,
we assemble a range of alternative futures faced by the
organisation. These represent the different scenarios that are
driven by the key uncertainties and change drivers in the
The current ‘business idea’ (value proposition, business
model) is then wind-tunnelled in these different scenarios of
the future. We can then deﬁne the key changes to be made for
operating in these future conditions. By embracing the
uncertainty in the environment (instead of simply predicting a
single set of operating conditions), we are able to create a
more resilient organisation for the future. In addition, we are
able to generate a series of innovative ideas that can enhance
the strategy and capability of the organisation.
STRATEGY IS ALIVE AND WELL
‘Strategy’ is not limited by conditions of uncertainty and change. Indeed, it is the very
testing ground in which we can prove the usefulness and effectiveness of strategy. Rich
pictures, strategic conversations and scenario thinking are three critical processes to
ensure that strategy makes a signiﬁcant contribution to navigating through these
treacherous waters of complexity and uncertainty.
Dr Norman Chorn is a strategist and organisation development practitioner with the
BrainLink Group. He uses principles of neuroscience to address the challenges of
developing strategy in a complex and uncertain environment. His particular areas of
focus are strategy in conditions of uncertainty; organisational and cultural alignment;
and strategic leadership.
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© Norman Chorn 2017 • firstname.lastname@example.org • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 7
1) Neuroscientiﬁc insights into management development, Paul McDonald and Yi-Yuan Tang, Group and Organisation
Management, September 2014
2) Future trends in leadership development, Nick Petrie, Centre for Creative Leadership White Paper, 2014
3) The keys to organisational agility, Wouter Aghina and Aaron De Smet, McKinsey Quarterly, December 2015
4) Embedding strategic agility: A leadership agenda for accelerating business model renewal, Y.L. Doz, and M.
Kosonen, M, Long Range Planning, no 43, 2010
5) Finally, proof that managing for the long term pays off, D Barton, J Manyika and S Williamson, Harvard Business
Review, February 2017
6) Measuing the economic impact of short termism, D Barton et al, McKinsey Global Institute, January 2017
7) Measuring the economic impact of short termism, op cit
8) Organisation strategy, structure and process, R Miles and C Snow, McGraw Hill, 1978
9) Business strategy and organisational performance, J Anwar, S Shah and S Hasnu, Pakistan Economic and Social
Review, no 54, 2016
10) Revisiting the strategy-performance linkage: An application of an empirically derived typology of strategy content
areas, M Luomo, Management Decision, no 53, 2015
11) The performance implications of ﬁt among business strategy, marketing organisation structure, and strategic
behaviour, E Olson, S Slater and G Hult, Journal of Marketing, no 63, 2005
12) Measuring organisational performance: Towards methodological best practice, P Richard, T Devinney, G Yip and G
Johnson, Journal of Management, no 35, 2009
13) On war, Carl von Clausewitz, translated by M Howard and P Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976
14) Strategy convergence, D Bonnet and G Yip, Business Strategy Review, London Business School, 2009.
© Norman Chorn 2017 • email@example.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 8