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Elisabet Lagerstedt


Why Strategy Isn’t Dead

Three ways strategic planning supports our humanity

Published: Thursday, March 10, 2016 - 17:58

A few years back, a searing pain in my elbow sent me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with olecranon bursitis. Apparently, all that time spent leaning forward on hard desks in different meeting rooms during my team’s frequent marathon strategic planning sessions was putting too much stress on my poor elbow. The doctor told me I would either have to shorten these sessions in the future, or find a better way of developing strategy.

However, a growing movement in business thinking would have me drop the painstaking process of strategic planning altogether. It’s just not thought to be fast and agile enough to fit into an environment of rapid change. Quite honestly, I can understand that.

With research showing that not even half of all strategic plans successfully reach their goals, and a world that is changing at a higher speed than ever before, it may actually seem futile and naïve to invest time into strategy development.

Meantime, there are counter-detractors who insist that strategy is still essential, but companies are doing it wrong—either by overlooking execution, using outmoded planning methods, or both.

But this debate often neglects what is, in my opinion, the best argument for strategy’s continued relevance: Strategic approaches to business—and life—just make deep-down sense to human beings.

Three ways strategic planning serves our humanity

As human beings, we share common strengths and weaknesses and have come to operate effectively under certain circumstances, which I believe also influences the way we do business. Let’s take a brief look at three sensible approaches to planning:

1. Focus is the key to success. We can’t do everything—not as individuals, not as teams, and not as businesses. As humans, we have a limited span of attention and need to prioritize and focus on what matters most to get things done. Businesses should ideally focus on what matters most to their customers. Focus is actually the key to any human success, and the hidden driver of excellence, according to Daniel Goleman. In a more complex world full of distractions, focus is actually more relevant than ever. Here, the tools and frameworks of strategy can help us focus by forcing us to consciously choose our playing field as well as our direction. Or as Richard P. Rumelt puts it in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (Crown Business, 2011), “Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.”

2. Thinking ahead is a human capability. The ability to think ahead is a longstanding human trait that has helped us become a successful species. Planning and positioning us well for the future means making a series of conscious decisions now, and taking a step back and looking at the larger picture rather than being totally preoccupied with ongoing day-to-day events. Today, we are, as a species, actually forming the planet. Anthropologists even suggest that we live in the “human age,” or the anthropocene, with the human race simply being the dominant force of change on the planet. This implies that we have a responsibility to shape the future consciously, instead of feeling and acting like helpless victims of an unpredictable environment outside our control. We always have a choice. Here, I am convinced that good strategy can help individuals, teams, businesses, and governments to wisely and consciously co-create a future we would actually want to live in.

3. Learning is an important part of (business) life. We all know intuitively that we learn by experience. However, research tells us that without the process of actively thinking about those experiences, and reflecting on what happened and what the experiences mean, learning doesn’t happen. As businesspeople we have very busy schedules and are normally caught up in the actions of day-to-day business. Thinking and reflection takes time—time that we often don’t have, or at least don’t allow ourselves to take. Yet take it we must. Strategic development in particular, but also strategic implementation and follow up, have the potential to help schedule thinking and reflection into our business lives to make sure that we use our whole portfolio of human capabilities. It simply forces us to take time out of day-to-day operations to reflect on our organizations’ environment, core competencies, purpose, direction, and future, together with our teams.

Bring out your inner strategist

Of course, it’s not possible for us to foresee the future, but we can prepare to assume an active role in it. I have earlier written about how businesses should keep track of evolving global mega-trends, e.g., the digital society, aging population, sustainability, and urbanization. The tools and the frameworks of strategy can actually help you make connections between the future of our world and the future of your company.

An important step into that future could be to bring out your inner strategist, as suggested by Cynthia Montgomery in The Strategist (HarperBusiness, 2012). As a successful strategist, you will constantly be asking yourself:
• What does my company bring the world?
• Does that difference matter?
• Are we relevant?
• How do we add value?
• How will we be relevant and add value in the future?

In case you were wondering what happened to my elbow, it actually recovered rather quickly. In addition, all that strategy that we worked on took us very close to our intended destination—just in ways we couldn’t have completely imagined.

For more on what strategy is and why you should be doing it, check out my latest Slideshare presentation.

Republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge © 2016.


About The Author

Elisabet Lagerstedt’s picture

Elisabet Lagerstedt

Elisabet Lagerstedt is CEO and executive consultant at Inquentia Group AB in Höllviken, Sweden. Lagerstedt holds master’s degrees of social sciences from Lund University and executive education from Harvard Business School. She is also a certified board director and practicing ICF coach. Lagerstedt has 20 years' experience in qualified roles in large companies, 15 years of which were in management-team level senior roles. Her focus today is helping companies and executives develop insight, strategy, and change from a market and customer perspective.