That’s not a strategy

This is how it is. You apply for a post that has the word ‘strategy’ in the job description, so, naturally, you try to give the impression you know what it is. Once you’re in the job, you’re told to write a strategy for whatever it is you do. You can’t really ask for help, because you already gave out that you knew strategy. When you hand it in, late, like homework, to your boss, they don’t give you any feedback about how good it is. This is because your boss is in exactly the same position: she or he doesn’t know either.

I once supported a board which had the word ‘Strategic’ in its title, and it wasn’t until a member pulled off the emperor’s new clothes by saying ‘Will someone tell us what strategy actually is?’ that everyone realised that no-one really knew.

You could go out and buy a book on the subject, or go on a training course, but if you do, you run the risk of something happening which happened to me once. Having carefully worked up your strategy (by the book) into a shining example of strategicness, you present it to your boss, who likes it, takes it to the board, and a board member stands up and says “that isn’t a strategy, because it doesn’t contain a…”. What the thing is that it doesn’t contain depends on what school of strategy they’ve been trained in. However, if it wasn’t the one that your book represents, your strategy has just been dismissed without even being read. Worse, you are seen as a lightweight, a charlatan and an impostor, for having had the temerity to present a strategy that didn’t contain a Gantt chart, or a SWOT, or a PESTLE, or whatever.

If you’ve had this experience, you are not alone.

Henry Mintzberg, founder of two schools of strategy, the Emergent school and the Configuration/Transformation school, did a piece of work with Ahlstrand and Lampel which culminated in a seminal book called Strategy Safari. Rather than continuing to promote and defend his own schools, Mintzberg and his colleagues analysed all the strategy literature and discovered that there are actually ten different, mutually incompatible schools of strategy. The chances that whoever reviewed your strategy follows the same school as you are fairly limited, unless you both went on the same training course, or read the same book.

There’s not space here to unpack everything that Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel write (after all, they filled a book), but, if you’re looking to bring about change or organisational development, an awareness of what the different schools are, how they differ, and how they are best deployed will help you. The ten schools aren’t just ten different academic opinions. They are all highly effective — or can be — in the domain for which they were constructed. However, using a kind of strategy inappropriate to what you are doing can be beyond disastrous.

In the long debate between Mintzberg’s Emergent school and the popular Planning school of strategy, one of the crucial examples cited was the First World War. Both France and Germany had elaborate plans for the start of the war they were sure they would fight. Germany had the Falk plan (now, curiously, the name for a popular series of European roadmaps), revised as the Schlieffen plan, and France had Plan XVII. In accordance with Planning school dictats, both set out in detail exactly what was to be done by whom on what day. One of the most obviously catastrophic results of this was that, on the Western front, both sides planned to outflank the other, which led almost immediately to a long line which stretched from the coast to the mountains, and was the direct tactical cause of the horrors of trench warfare. The Planning school of strategy — excellent for building a house, planning a wedding or administering an election — relies on being able to accurately predict the situation you will find yourself in. Building the Channel Tunnel (which went billions of pounds over-budget), asking someone to marry you, or winning an election are situations in which the Planning school will lead you into dangerous assumptions.

So, what are the ten schools of strategy that Mintzberg identified, when are they useful, and, crucially, how can you possibly remember all ten?

I have an acronym which may help you. It involves changing the words Mintzberg used, but at least it will help you to keep them straight. The acronym is STRATEGIST, and I will unpack the what, when and why now.

S is for Situation. This corresponds with Mintzberg’s Environmental school. People who follow this school look to the environment or context to determine what strategy should be pursued. Anyone whose strategy begins with a PESTLE analysis, looking at the political, economic, social, technological, legal and ecological context, is probably working from the environmental school.

T is for Thinking. This is the Cognitive school. Cognitivists come up with a story or a picture which helps them to make sense of where they are, and to create a narrative which takes them where they’re going. You could also say ‘Template’, because cognitivists are often concerned about changing the template your organisation habitually uses in order to get to a different, and superior, result.

R is for Resolve. This is the Entrepreneurial school — the big boss with a big idea. People in this school are all about developing the qualities and character of leaders, and rely on good leaders to innovate their own strategies.

A is for Allies. This is the Political school. This school sees strategy as a series of negotiations. Where there are many powerful players and strong networks, this may be the best place to start.

T is for Tactics. This is the Positioning school, known for its many maxims: buy low, sell high; you can’t fool all of the people all of the time; don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A carefully constructed set of maxims has the enormous advantage of being memorable. Seriously, if, when you get to a fork in the road you can’t remember whether your strategy says ‘go left’ or ‘go right’, then you don’t have a strategy. The positioning school can help, though often it doesn’t: simply knowing your organisation’s mission and vision doesn’t always mean you know where to go next.

E is for Embedding. This is the Cultural school. Analysis of the superiority of Japanese manufacturers over American in the 1970s and 1980s led to a vast academic literature about how creating the right organisational culture was the strategy to follow. In many cases, this is still right.

G is for Gameplan. This, of course, is the Planning school. Get out your SMART goals, your Gantt charts, your PERTs and all the paraphernalia of project planning, because this is where the start-at-the-end-and-work-backwards school of scientific process is king. Despite the extensive criticism which it’s received over the last 100 years, this is still the type of strategy that most people think of when they hear the word.

I is for Improvement. This is the Learning or Emergent school. Making the strategy self-improving is the key to this school. Not just research beforehand, but learning from blind-alleys and mistakes, and always being willing to change course are the hallmarks of Emergent strategists.

S is for System. This is the Design school. The nub of the design school is that you shape your organisation so that it perfectly meets the outside world. If this seems eerily familiar, it probably is: the school’s greatest success is the SWOT diagram, where you map your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and then (magically, it seems) match the strengths to threats and opportunities to weaknesses to tell you what your strategy is. When you see this done properly for the first time it really does seem magical, and accounts for the enormous popularity of this approach during the 1980s and 1990s. Like all the schools, it works when it’s appropriate, but not always. The Design School is not just about SWOT. You may also have seen it in any number of four-quadrant charts which are a favourite of the approach.

T is for Transformation, and is the Transformation or Configuration school. Mintzberg sees this as the most complete of the schools, and this is forgivable, since he invented it. Configurationists look at the shape of the organisation. Could changing the shape — from, say, being dominated by administrators to being dominated by technicians — improve its performance? Could changing its shape result in transformation change which improves its capabilities and makes it better ready for the next change?

In a very quick gander we’ve been able to do no more than cameo each school. If this article does nothing else than stop you being the person who says “that’s not a strategy, because it doesn’t contain a SWOT/Gantt/PESTLE/stakeholder map/etc”, then it has achieved something. To me, however, the virtue of having an acronym which I can actually remember is that it enables me, in creating or considering a strategy, to turn each of these into a question, and say “what about…”. At the very least, this will prevent you from overlooking something which your preferred school naturally overlooks. At best, it will help you to create rich, nuanced strategies at many levels.

However, before you do, let me recommend that you go out and buy Mintzberg’s book.

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