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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.
NOTE: This is a summary of the full article. See the FULL version at https://www.slideshare.net/normanchorn/strategy-is-alive-and-well-and-living-in-uncertainty
A PREMATURE OBITUARY?
Many pundits claim that strategy is dead and has no place in this uncertain and fast changing
environment. They say it’s too slow and the outcomes are irrelevant as conditions change rapidly.
Moreover, they argue, organisations should focus on being agile and concentrate on launching a
series of short, sharp projects to respond to the changing environment.
My view is that this short term perspective is based on three ﬂawed assumptions about strategy.
Why are these assumptions ﬂawed?
1. Strategy is different to planning
Planning is a process where we set
speciﬁc objectives ahead of the time,
and then focus on the steps and
milestones to achieve these
objectives. It is useful in a shorter
timeframe where the conditions and
constraints are relatively stable.
Strategy, on the other hand, is an
ongoing learning process where we
seek to position the organisation
within its operating environment. It is
ﬂuid and is concerned with a series of aims rather than speciﬁc objectives. It is NOT concerned
with predicting or making assumptions about the future - but focuses on understanding the system
within which the organisation operates, and identifying the various leverage points that might be
used to advance the organisation’s position.
2. There is real payoff in developing strategy
Recent research across several industry sectors shows that organisations involved in strategic
conversations and setting (longer term) strategy consistently show superior economic and
Moreover, the research shows that the cost of short term approaches (a focus on simply being
responsive and reactive to changes in the environment) is that these organisations become
fragmented and slowly erode the value of their resources.
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Dr Norman Chorn
3. Agility is not a strategy
Agility is not a strategy - it is a means of developing and executing a strategy. Indeed, high levels
of agility without an underpinning strategy could lead to a more rapid fragmentation and
degradation of organisational capabilities.
A long-standing and robust typology of organisational styles is offered by Raymond Miles and
Charles Snow in their description of organisations as:
Repeated research shows that Reactors have the poorest performance of the types - and that they
experience more failure and ‘corporate rescues’. (See the longer version of this article for further
EFFECTIVE STRATEGY IN UNCERTAINTY
Three processes contribute to effective strategy in these conditions of change and uncertainty:
1. Build a rich picture
A rich picture is a systems-view of the system of which the organisation is a part. It graphically
represents the key elements in the system and their interdependencies; how and where the
organisation interacts with the system; and the potential leverage points that can be used by the
organisation to re-position itself. It is a key input into the next process - the strategic conversation.
2. Start a strategic conversation
Strategy is a conversation inside the organisation. Like most conversations, it beneﬁts from wide
participation and a wide array of diverse perspectives.
Strategic conversations are systems with several components:
• An overall aim articulated by leadership
• Presentations by leadership to “frame” the conversation
• Executive blogs and posts
• Online discussions and forums
• Knowledge sharing platforms
• Workshops, meetings and discussions to explore detail
The strategic conversation provides an important input for the third process - the use of scenario
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 2
3. Use scenario thinking
Scenario thinking ﬂips an issue that typically causes a logjam in strategy - an attempt to predict the
future state of the environment. Rather than arguing about what the future holds, we focus on what
the organisation will do in the event of a series of alternative futures.
Scenario thinking makes two important distinctions:
• We no longer focus on only one future - organisations face multiple futures in an uncertain
• We are no longer concerned with predicting the future. We focus instead on
understanding the capabilities required by the organisation to thrive
in the range of alternative futures. Even if the range of alternative
futures is wide, there will usually be a set of common capabilities
required across them all. These then become the subject of
By using the insights gathered through the strategic conversation, we
generate a set of alternative futures faced by the organisation. The
current business idea (value proposition, business model) is then wind-
tunnelled in these different scenarios of the future. 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
Rather than being irrelevant in this fast changing environment - change and uncertainty are the
very proving grounds for the real value of strategy. Rich pictures, strategic conversations and
scenario thinking are three processes that can contribute to effective strategy for navigating
through these times of uncertainty and change.
This is a summary of the original paper.
Download the full version here.
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 • email@example.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 3