Why We Continue to Struggle with Strategy 2,500 Years Later

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There have been volumes written about strategy in various forms since Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War around 500BC. We have over 2,500 years of thought behind strategy.

Given the sheer number of hours spent and calories burned thinking about strategy, two questions require consideration:

  1. Why do we still struggle with how to create, manage and execute strategy?
  2. Why did The Economist state that “nobody really knows what strategy is”?

The short answer is: strategy is complex and ambiguous.

It is complex because there are many moving and interdependent elements — what may work today may not work tomorrow as customer, competitor and regulatory behaviours shift. It is ambiguous because strategy requires us to predict the future in order to determine actions for today.

One would think that in today’s world with a seemingly endless supply of information and data, forecasting would be relatively easy. Unfortunately, the information we receive is often incomplete, incorrect, irrelevant, and most importantly requires interpretation which compounds the complexity.

So, how does one know what data to collect and which analysis will be informative? It starts with knowing what questions need to be answered, having clarity on what decisions need to be made, and the knowledge required to make them. Each organization must formulate its own set of questions given its unique circumstances, stage of evolution, and operating environment.

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When it comes to answering the questions, data analysis is definitely part of  the solution, but it is not sufficient and can be misleading. Issues need to be looked at from multiple angles and perspectives, scenarios played out and experimentation undertaken. Finding the correct path to take is as much an art as it is a science.

Being able to work in this world of complexity and ambiguity requires leaders and organizations who value learning, innovation and creativity at all levels. The fact of the matter is we’ll never get strategy “right,” which means we’ll never stop talking about ways to do it better.

That being said, successful organizations have realized that if the world in which they operate is dynamic, then transforming strategy from an episodic annual planning event into a living, breathing organism — one that is fed with thinking and experimentation, and nourished through execution and tracking — is the gateway to success.

This post was written in collaboration with my colleague, Sonia Gawlick.

Image credits: Celestine Chua and Stefan Erschwendner via Flickr

Tom Dent

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