4 Questions With Maura Sullivan, Chief Strategy & Innovation, US Navy

How is the role of the strategist changing in the digital age?


Maura Sullivan is Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at the US Navy. She is the executive director of SECNAV's Taskforce Innovation, and is tasked with preparing the Department of the Navy through policy change, developing crowdsourcing and seed funding capabilities, scaling best practices, and providing strategy and thought-leadership. She previously worked at global catastrophe risk company, RMS, developing software and consulting solutions for managing complex systemic risks, and has years of experience developing and implementing strategy. 

Ahead of her presentation at the upcoming Chief Strategy Officer Summit in San Francisco on May 18-19, we sat down with Maura to discuss how strategy is implemented within her field and the role of the strategist in today's digital world. 

What are the main qualities of a successful strategy?

Strategy is about what you choose not to do. It requires embracing uncertainty and being intentional about where the organization will be underprepared. Strategy is the means by which risk criteria are applied to the uncertainty space in order for it to become an opportunity space. World-class organizations must be optimized. The same way a world-class marathoner cannot be a world-class sprinter, good strategy is a series of decisions about where to be weak, where to be strong, and how to be adaptable.

How do you think the role of a strategist is changing?

We live in a world characterized by rapid change and constantly shifting business models. Strategy can no longer be about optimizing for incremental gains in productivity or operational decisions about resourcing. Today’s strategists must be conscientious designers with an in-depth understanding of risk. Strategists need to be able to connect concepts that seem unrelated at face value in order to predict disruption. They must have to both the imagination and the analytic frameworks to see cause-and-effect relationships and extrapolate and communicate the impact of present trends on a complex, uncertain future.

How important is flexibility in creating new strategies?

Good strategy sets a clear vision and picture of the future and is rigid enough to prevent major abuses, but flexible enough to allow innovation. In other words, it must be bounded by preventing the worst case, but flexible enough to stay out of the way, so that unforeseen innovations consistent with the core direction can flourish.

Have the attitudes of a new generation of workers affected how strategy is formulated or implemented?

Younger workers have grown up in a world where the exchange of information is instantaneous, non-hierarchical, and decentralized. This leads to the expectation that decision-making will be impacted by ideation that occurs across the organization, not just from the top. Younger workers want ownership and to understand how their efforts are contributing to the success of the organization generally. This requires a more expansive set of communication, collaboration tools, channels, and the ability for personalization of elements of the overarching strategy.

You can hear more from Maura, along with other leading senior strategy executives, at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit, taking place in San Francisco on May 18-19.


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