Why Strategy Is Not Dead

A rapidly changing business environment is no reason to abandon strategy altogether


Many have jumped on board the quite dramatic conclusion that strategy - defined as a plan for achieving particular goals over an extended period of time - is dead and buried. Perhaps the most high-profile detractor has been Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi, who said: 'Strategy is dead. The more time you spend devising strategies, the more time you are giving your rivals to start eating your lunch.'

There is a (valid) argument that if you're doing strategy wrong, you're not doing it at all. A strategy that does not, or could never feasibly, meet its targets isn't one at all, rather it is a wish-list. No plan completely survives contact with the market unchanged, but the most informed plans will be able to face the challenge; those with unrealistic goals are the first to require time-wasting revisiting, or abandonment. It is the job of a skilled business leader - and, indeed, anyone of influence in a company - to develop intelligent, realistic and thought-out plans.

Rigidity in strategy is certainly defunct, though. The ever-changing business landscape doesn't cater for a plan lacking flexibility, but it never did. Rigidity was never an ideal way of operating; a faster, less predictable business environment only serves to highlight the fact, not cause it. The principle tenets of the anti-strategy drive are all, in many ways, reductive. The notion that because business has changed, competition can now come from all over and incremental progress is doomed to be destroyed by a disruptor, is almost conclusory. An unpredictable future landscape is no grounds to abandon preparation altogether.

We simply have to realign our perception of a long-term plan. What could once have applied for several years must now be adaptable, and those setting targets must be aware of the necessity of flexibility in their outlook. Weeks sat around the planning table painstakingly carving a set-in-stone strategy are a thing of the past, and rightly so. Strategy, at its core, is a set of choices designed to win the market; this principle must remain, but the need for pragmatism over dogmatism has never been more acute. Smaller lists of goals, streamlined planning processes and regular follow-ups are essential in an environment that demands hands-on maintenance of both targets and implementation.

Those citing the rapidity of change, as well as the unquantifiable potential of new technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT), as the death of strategy should look to history. The IoT is not the first emerging tech subject to inject unpredictability and it won't be the last. Indeed, Thomas Watson, former president of IBM, said in 1943: 'I think there is a world market for maybe five computers'. While, three years later, Darryl Zanuck, former executive at 20th Century Fox, said: 'Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months.' Simply because the potential of a new technology is prone to being misunderstood is no cause to abandon strategy regarding it. More sophisticated predictions may lead to better results but in the world of technology, the future belongs to those willing to embrace and plan for the eventual explosion of an emerging tech. Yes, some strategies may be doomed never to come to fruition thanks to the misplaced faith in a new tech, and the headlights are becoming increasingly dim, but the principle of educated gambles is not new in business.

Let's not declare strategy dead, rather lets limit bad strategy. Smart strategy is alive and well, and can be the difference between being an industry leader and simply reacting to changes made by others. It is not enough to be reactive. Strategy, at its most basic, is having a coherent plans; evolving global mega-trends - digital society, ageing population, urbanization etc - can be factored into a wider strategy even in today's environment. Those who refuse to engage with plans to navigate the changing landscape do so at their own peril. 

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