Strategy is a mess. I mean the way of thinking about strategy that we know from our textbooks and that is taught at MBA programs all over the world. It is the approach to strategy that is driven by missions and visions, relies heavily on external and internal analysis, is supported by numerous tools, and targets at formulating and implementing an inspiring strategy that will beat the competition over the next three years.
If you don’t know what I mean, have a look at the most recent edition of Johnson, Scholes & Whittington’s (2017) “Exploring Strategy: Text and Cases” and browse its contents. With over a million copies sold, it is one of the most popular strategy textbooks ever and has basically set the standard. As such, it provides a good idea of the dominant way of thinking about strategy.
The clearest indicator that strategy is a mess is the high failure rates reported in academic studies. Depending on which study you read, failure rates between 50 and 90 % are reported. So the range is wide. But even if a critical examination would cut this number in half, this failure rate is still extremely high and something we certainly wouldn’t accept from any other business process—or of anything else.
Another indicator that strategy is a mess is that the approach—as well as the field in general—is heavily criticized by many experts in business, consulting and academia. I’d like to single out one criticism because it is interesting due to its age. The approach above was already called “traditional” and “distorted” in 1984 (in a Long Range Planning article by Roy Wernham.) This is 35 years ago and the same year that the first edition of Johnson’s textbook appeared. Ever since, similar criticisms have been voiced by numerous experts.
While slightly updated, the essence of the approach has remained pretty identical over the past decades. Furthermore, take a random alternative strategy textbook and you find basically the same contents. Of course, there are differences, but the canonical ideas of what business strategy is all about have remained remarkably stable over all those years.
This is interesting. It means we are stuck with an approach of which we know it doesn’t work, but that we keep on promoting and teaching anyway. The main reason, I think, is that it is based on a set of myths about strategy that are so strong and convincing that we keep them alive, no matter what. The strength and broad acceptance of these myths make that we hardly dare to challenge them or look for alternative approaches. Instead, we all do strategy as we are supposed to do and thereby perpetuate the myths.
To help break through the cycle, I will discuss in this series of articles the ten most important myths about strategy. They are:
- Myth #1: Strategy Is About War
- Myth #2: Strategy Equals Planning
- Myth #3: Strategy Starts With Goals
- Myth #4: Strategy Should Be High-Level
- Myth #5: Strategy Should Be Simple
- Myth #6: Strategy Resides At The Top
- Myth #7: Strategy Can Be Made By Consultants
- Myth #8: Strategy Derives From Data
- Myth #9: Strategy Requires Offsites
- Myth #10: Strategy Should Be Formulated
The first three myths concern the essence of what strategy is all about. As I will argue in those articles, strategy is not about war, not about planning and foresight and not about achieving predefined goals and purposes. The next two myths concern the key characteristics that strategy is supposed to have: that it is high-level and generic and that it is simple and easy. I will explain why it is a mistake to believe this. Myths #6 through #9 concern who should make strategy and how it is made. Discussing these four myths will show that strategy needs to be made in a different way than we usually assume. Finally, myth #10 challenges the whole idea of strategy as a noun, the idea that organizations need a definable strategy that can be formulated and executed.
Along with the demystification of these ten myths, the next ten articles will sketch an alternative view to strategy that, so I hope and think, helps break the dogmatic insistence on the traditional strategy approach as we know it.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty