In the opening paragraph of Exploring Strategy, one of Europe’s best-selling strategy textbooks, the authors make a very distinctive claim about the importance of strategy:
“Strategy is a crucial subject. It’s about the development, success and failure of all kinds of organisations, from multinationals to entrepreneurial start-ups, from charities to government agencies, and many more. Strategy raises the big questions about these organisations – how they grow, how they innovate and how they change.”
While this is at the heart of the concept of Strategy, as we understand it today, there is a pervasive tendency for strategists to mistake implementation for planning, action for position and culture for strategic orientation. Strategic planning carries the stigma of being an exercise carried out by the management elite. Seen as the apex of the organisation, they strategize behind locked doors, shielding them from prying competitive eyes and ears. Some believe that strategic planning happens at specific times of the year, resulting in explicit statements such as ‘Our strategic pillars are customer satisfaction, operational excellence, digital leadership…’ and goals that resonate with everyday activities of a construction company: ‘Our strategic goal is to build a world-class company.’
These are critical ingredients, but hardly sufficient without the delicate work of translating the fluffy statements into actions, behavioural changes, and cultural adaptation. It is also noteworthy that strategy positions, including chief strategy officers (CSOs) were invented in the late 1980s as functions in the ranks of organisations due to the importance of strategic decisions on their performance. Any general manager, or strategist of today or tomorrow, will be involved in shaping, implementing or communicating strategies. The crux is that a strategic decision made at the top of the organisational hierarchy is only as good as it is executed at the bottom of the pyramid. The common expectation is that people in strategy positions (e.g., CSOs and business developers) will identify major changes in the environment, including, competition, technology, and customer base, and to be able to make the necessary adjustments to the firm’s business model. Indeed, even being able to “sell” these change needs and driving change is part of their responsibility.
In today’s highly complex business environment, it is difficult to spot the next big technological breakthrough that will reshape an industry, let alone the difficulty of knowing which industrial domain it will emerge from and which competitors, buyers, and suppliers it will attract. As little as understanding a competitor, a viable technology, or a suitable business model is a structured analytical exercise, it is simple to understand who supports and who is against strategic change in an organisation. For example, the Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia suffered neither the financial strength nor the capability to spot and develop the next generation mobile phones. Yet, its management failed to address the vast array of challenges, internally as well externally, biased by fear among middle managers as well as senior managers. Similarly, the camera and photo equipment manufacturer Kodak even invented the digital camera, but top management actively denied it as part of its product portfolio, a strategic decision that subsequently led to its extinction.
Faced with these complexities, the strategists of tomorrow, whether at the top, middle or bottom of the organisational hierarchy, will need to be equipped with a critical thinking, a creative mindset, and a rigorous understanding of both established and recent concepts and theories as well as a training in applying them to real-time problems. With this in mind, we undertook a journey of developing one of Europe’s few postgraduate programmes dedicated to the art and science of strategy. We are now launching this programme to students with any background who would like to take on the challenge of engaging in developing their strategic skills and capabilities for leading the organisation of the future.