Strategy Creates Conflict

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You probably think that you have a strategy for your business. That is extremely unlikely.

It's unlikely because a strategy is a plan for what you'll do in the future to achieve some objective or reach some goal. The problem is that your plans are in the future, and the future is uncertain, and you don't really know what the future holds until you get there. In other words, as soon as you take a step forwards on your shiny new strategy, the landscape changes and your strategy is out of date.

Mintzberg called this an 'emergent strategy', meaning that you mostly make it up as you go along, because you can't see what's round the next corner.

However, at every step, you have to make a decision about what to actually do, and that creates conflict. Constant, unrelenting, tiring conflict.

The word 'strategy' comes from a latin root meaning to cover, spread out or arrange in layers.

The word 'tactics' comes from a latin root meaning to arrange or put in order.

Therefore, strategy is layered thinking, and tactics is ordered thinking.

A strategy is a plan. In order to make any plan, you need to know three things:

Where you are

Where you’re going

How you intend to get there

It sounds simple, yet there are many risks lurking in the details.

Where are you?

Without accurate and honest measurements, you don’t know where you are, and you’re more likely to base your strategy on where you think you should be, rather than where you actually are. Enron, Tesco, and many other companies, routinely lie about where they are.

Where are you going?

Without a clear direction, you’re more likely to react to the conflicting demands of your customers and competitors, and you’ll end up going round in circles.

How will you get there?

The future is always uncertain, and as soon as you begin to take action on your plan, the landscape will change. If you don’t continually update your plan, you’ll be stuck with a course of action which is no longer relevant. Kodak, Blockbuster and Thomas Cook failed to act on a changing landscape.

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Having a strategy means that you’re making a guess about the future. It can’t be a perfect guess, but you hope it’s better than reacting to changing circumstances. You may not reach the exact destination you had in mind, but it’s better to have a sense of your own direction rather than to drift.

Unfortunately, as soon as you create a strategy, you create conflict.

You can’t stay where you are, because you are standing on an island. That island is continually shrinking, because the market is moving, your customers’ expectations are changing, and your competitors are innovating and evolving. Staying where you are means you’re going backwards.

As soon as you make a plan to move, you introduce uncertainty. When people are in an uncertain, unpredictable environment, they feel unsafe and insecure. Everyone might agree that moving is the best option, but how to move, and when, and to where?

Everyone might agree on the necessity for action, but individual fear of failure means they disagree on the best course of action. If this conflict cannot be managed effectively, the result will be indecision, inaction and, ultimately, failure.

Strategy creates risk, because the future is uncertain. Anyone contributing to the decision will be motivated to various degrees by the fear of failure. Their fear might make them more bullish, or more cautious. Fear creates alliances and silos. Acting from fear creates conflict, because each person takes up their own position based on protecting their own interests, and that position is based on their individual perception.

If you want to influence strategy, don't do it directly in a decision making meeting, because the interested parties will already be defending their positions. Do it before the meeting. Understand where each person is coming from, discover their objectives and uncover their fears.

Most importantly, don't waste time creating perfect future plans. By the time you've written your plan, it's already obsolete. It's far more important to gather accurate, real-time information and act quickly on that.

Measuring performance, gathering real-time information and tracking progress is incredibly easy, far easier than predicting the future. Unfortunately, most people are more comfortable predicting the future, perhaps because their predictions are unverifiable and they can't be proven wrong - until it's too late. I find that a symptom of this, in a corporate culture, is when people feel under pressure to come up with 'good ideas'. You've no doubt been in a meeting and heard someone say, "I've got a good idea". No, you haven't. You have an idea, at best. But is it good? There's only one way to find out.

You can't have a good idea. You can only have an idea. It's up to you to do what it takes to make it right.

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