Strategy is as old as the hills or, at least, as old as human conflict. Military examples and imagery have always played a key role in business development, probably because of a host of similarities. Who is the enemy/competitor? Where is the battlefield/market? What resources are deployed? How do we engage?
The Art of War written in 500BC by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general, is a classic, then and now, because it challenges the assumptions that many people have about strategy. It is probably where the art of strategy was first encountered. Strategy is not mere theory. Sun Tzu challenges fundamentals. Why engage in battle when you can win by other means? Why not attack your enemy’s (competitor’s) strategy (rather than blindly pursue your own)? Or his alliances? Or next best, his soldiers?
Sun Tzu has no room for sentiment. He says: ‘Deploy forces to defend the strategic points: exercise vigilance in preparation, do not be indolent. Deeply investigate the true situation, secretly await their laxity. Wait until they leave their strongholds, then seize what they love’
The word strategy itself comes from the Greek word strategia which means the art or science of being a (military) general. The Greek and Roman generals knew that wars were won by a careful management of politics, logistics, planning tactics and taking action, but the parallels between military and business strategy can be made throughout all periods of history right up to the 1990 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraqi war. Day-to-day business is like a series of battles in a war. If the overall strategy is correct (and it is usually correct if a systems thinking approach is taken) a number of tactical errors can be made without hindering the achievement of the overall objective.
Part of the ‘problem’ with developing strategy as a thinking tool is the answering of the question ‘What is Strategy?’ There are many definitions and interpretations, and of course, this just adds to the challenge of de-mystifying strategy and developing a simple and practiced system that every manager, and the entrepreneurial manager in particular, can use.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines strategy in militaristic terms: ‘generalship, the art of war: management of an army or armies in a campaign, art of so moving or disposing troops or ships or aircraft as to impose upon the enemy the place and time and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.
To the lay person, strategy is a plan. It’s a clearly set out way of dealing with a certain kind of situation. For example, a child has a ‘strategy’ to organise a birthday party. A business has a strategy to enter a new market. A sports team has a strategy to win a match or a championship. A political party has a strategy to win an election.
According to this interpretation, strategies have two essential characteristics: (1) they are made in advance of the actions to which they apply, and (2) they are developed consciously and purposefully. I believe that the cause of much of the confusion and mystification about strategy is that, in sport, in the military, and in management, strategy has been interpreted as being just a plan of doing things.
The key to becoming an effective strategist is the realisation that strategy is much more than just planning. Strategic planning is relatively easy. Strategic thinking is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Strategic thinking is visioning in action. To becoming a strategic thinker, it is essential to know that:
The Superquinn strategy in Ireland is derived from the approach of Feargal Quinn who eats, sleeps and drinks customer service. He is the personification of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that: ‘every organisation is the length and shadow of one man’
Development of strategic thinking means developing a shared vision and collective consciousness and learning of the organisation. It is identifying and leading with these core competencies. This development is one of the major challenges for the entrepreneurial manager within himself in the first instance, and within the individuals, teams, and, eventually, his total organisation.
Rather than set strategies, some organisations prefer to ‘respond’ to situations. They rationalise this by saying that all plans and forecasts are inaccurate anyway. There is too much change in the internal and external environment and the costs, time and inconvenience spent in such reflection and planning is frustrating and pointless.
Many other organisations only resort to strategy when a disaster, such as loss of a major customer contract strikes. They then rush to establish strategies and get their thinking processes in order. All too often, it’s too late. This is emphasised when we consider that 58% of all new Irish businesses fail within five years of start-up. The European average for such failure is 46%. Regular, constant, vigilance and crisis anticipation is an important management skill.