Is Strategy over-rated?

Talking to a couple of respected colleagues at the recent Association for Coaching Conference in Edinburgh the topic of strategy and business planning came up.

I mischievously suggested that in the current fast-moving, not to say turbulent, economy that strategy and business planning was old hat and not so important.

One of my colleagues vehemently challenged me on that and was very clear about the absolute necessity for it. What we did all agree on however was that the old idea of  10-year and 3-year planning horizons was now unrealistic and my other colleague, who had worked in the US with a company, reflected on their 2-week planning horizons.

Then the day after I got back there was a piece in the Sunday Times by Carly Chynoweth suggesting that bosses waste too much time plotting strategy and not enough thinking about getting things done.

She was quoting Kevin Roberts, world-wide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. Speaking at a recent Institute of Directors’ event he said; “In this world where things happen overnight, strategy is dead.  The world is too volatile, too uncertain, so there is little point wasting time strategising. The more time you spend on strategy, the more time you spend on competitors eating your lunch”

He went on to say that we are in the “world of now” and “execution and velocity is everything”. Now up to that point I was thinking that Roberts was making my case for me but when he said; “CEOs should be able to make decisions in 2 minutes. Follow your gut, you’re the CEO, you know more than other people” I began to have doubts.

For decades MBA trained strategists and leaders have spent 80% of their time assessing and evaluating data and then expected their managers to execute it. Roberts thinks you should more or less invert that and spend 20% on the assessing and evaluating before making a quick decision and then putting all your energy into executing the decision.

But in the same article author Michael Syrett is quoted as saying it’s simple to decide on your mission and strategy but harder to actually implement it – the “what” is easy; it’s the “how” that is difficult and time-consuming.

And Mark Batey, from Manchester Business School, also disagrees with Roberts and thinks that most problems in execution stem from flaws in the strategy. If the strategy was right then everything else would flow from that much more easily.

To get the strategy right Batey thinks leaders should spend more time on quality thinking and using their teams to develop options. He also thinks we are basically lazy and prefer to rely on past experience, which is OK if it’s “business as usual” but not in a more complex and dynamic environment.

So Roberts is partly right when he talks about the speed of change but probably wrong in assuming that strategic decisions can be made quickly by CEOs. Haven’t we learnt from examples of CEOs who thought they knew everything and were allowed to take risks by their colleagues?

And in a fast-moving global economy should we be playing to our strengths or developing new ideas? Dig out that SWOT analysis!