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Don’t Be Blinded By Your Strategy

When you don't allow pragmatism, your strategy alone can blind you

8Oct

In 2005, Lawrence G. Hrebiniak’s book - Making Strategy Work - was released. The book examined the common obstacles facing managers when executing company strategies, and looked to provide a framework to help them overcome their biggest problems. Yet a decade after the book’s release, the issues it addressed continue to blight the effectiveness of many strategies. In fact, many managers now feel that strategic implementation is more challenging than the formulation process.

The word ‘strategy’ is overused, and more often than not it's just a way of summarizing a company’s plans for growth, or increased sales. Business people also often conflate strategy and innovation, using them interchangeably as ways to describe how a company wants to drive itself forward. It’s the perception of failure which separates these two most readily - it is integral in innovation, but detrimental to a strategy.

Unfortunately for strategists, no article will ever be able to give them a definitive guide on how to successfully execute a strategy. Even after two full books dedicated to the topic, ‘Making Strategy Work’, left a lot to be desired. All we can do, then, is examine how successful companies have gone about the process.

One of the aspects which ‘Making Strategy Work’ addressed was the importance of framing a strategy so that it doesn’t stop a company reacting to new threats. As defined by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), ‘strategic frames’ are how managers define what market they’re operating in, their competitors and the customers they need to focus on. While frames do add clarity, they can also be guilty of giving strategists tunnel vision.

A rigid strategic frame becomes particularly impactful when a company is assessing its customers. For example, retailer, Laura Ashley, failed to recognize a shift in customer taste, and instead wrote a sales decline off as a ‘temporary fluctuation’. Customer expectations change quicker than ever before, and being blinded by your own strategy can see opportunities come and go quickly.

The HBR notes that this mistake is often committed outside the business arena. After the French army’s gung-ho approach in the trenches cost them dearly in WW1, they changed their tact altogether. Their new defensive posture was most evident with the Maginot Line, which proved to be ineffective in protecting their boarder from oncoming German soldiers. According to Donald Sull: ‘The hard-won lesson from the First World War became a tragic blinder during the Second’. The HBR concluded that businesses can use the French army’s experience as an example of how focussing too much on previous results - whether good or bad - can lead to problems.

Both these examples show how important it is to fight today’s battle, not yesterday’s. Strategies need to be redesigned when the market changes. Technology has cut time-to-market, and allows new companies to go after your customers in ways which were previously untested. When you’re blinded by a strategy, it’s impossible to be vigilant.

This has been the downfall of many companies - whether it is Blockbuster or Kodak - and makes once innovative companies, obsolete. 

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