May you live in interesting times
The Chinese have a saying ‘May you live in interesting times’. Unfortunately, this is not something one says to a friend. Instead it is meant as a curse, where interesting refers to uncertainty and chaotic change. With issues like Brexit, cyber security and changes like GDPR coming down the line, many managers would agree that we are indeed living in ‘interesting times’.
We now use acronyms like VUCA to describe what business leaders face day-to-day, an environment where change is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. At a time when environmental uncertainty is at a high, a greater grasp of long-term strategy is crucial.
However, a recent survey carried out by the Institute of Directors in Ireland found that 44% of directors and senior executives surveyed see a lack of long-term strategic planning as impacting their organisation’s decision-making.
So, in this sort of world, how can managers and business leaders approach strategy and take some of the strain out of the process? There are four big ideas that can really help here:
- Let the Tools do the Heavy Lifting
Basic tools like PESTEL (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, Legal), VRIO (Value, Rarity, Imitability, Organization) and the eponymous SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) are very simple to apply with a little practice. But this simplicity hides their power to structure the ambiguity of the environment and how your organisation is set up to respond. Let these tools do the heavy lifting at the start of the analysis and free up your creativity for later.
- Strategy is a Team Sport
Bring in as many perspectives into the process as you can. Not only will this combat your own blind spots and biases, it will also allow you to generate buy-in from your team and colleagues in the new direction you are crafting.
- Think Implementation Not Execution
While it can be tempting to approach strategy from the perspective of a solid plan to be executed, this perspective ignores the continuing nature of change. Instead think of implementation when it comes to strategic action and embrace a more flexible and adaptive approach. To paraphrase the Prussian general and strategist Helmuth von Moltke ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’.
- Prepare for the Politics
Organisational politics can often be seen as a dirty word and gets quite a bad wrap in business, yet in reality it is just a toolset that can be used in many different ways. Accept this dimension of organisational life and prepare to hit some speed bumps along the way from those who might not want you to succeed. By preparing to manage the wide spectrum of stakeholders you will encounter, your chances of success are greatly increased.
Embrace the chaos
Embracing a strategic view like this, and taking the above ideas on board can go a long way to help with decision-making in times of uncertainty. If you can build this sort of approach into your regular management routines, over time they will give you an edge that others simply don’t have. No one ever said the task of business leadership was an easy one, but if you approach strategy in a smart way, success is attainable even in ‘interesting times’.
Dr Brian Massey is a Programme Director on both the IMI Diploma in Strategy & Innovation and IMI Diploma in Management. Brian holds a PhD in Strategic Management and specialises in helping business leaders analyse complex change in their industries and craft stronger strategies and business models to take advantage of these changes.