Bad strategy

Posted by Daryl Cook - December 19, 2012
Filed in Strategic clarity

I recently had the opportunity (and privilege) to attend a masterclass with [Richard Rumelt](http://www.strategyland.com/), one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategy and management, and author of ‘[Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters](http://www.amazon.com/Good-Strategy-Bad-Difference-Matters/dp/0307886239/)’.
As the title of his book hints, he sees lots of examples of what he calls ‘bad strategy’. He sees the hallmarks of a bad strategy being ‘fluff’, failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy and bad strategic objectives. He defines fluff as “a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments,” and argues that fluffy slogans become substituted for strategy. In the masterclass, as he does in the book, he provided plenty of stories and examples to illustrate his point.
Attending the masterclass reaffirmed just how important the work we are doing with our clients is. We commonly see the problems he describes, where strategies are full of ambiguous and abstract language. Employees are encouraged to be ‘customer-centric’ and ‘results-driven’, and to have ‘a high degree of professionalism’. They are expected to live a company’s values of ‘integrity’, ‘passion’ and ‘honesty’. They have to continually improve the way they work to make themselves more ‘efficient’ and effective’, working ‘smarter not harder’ so as to ‘get the right things done’.
Whilst they may be well-intentioned, these abstractions often get in the way of real understanding and action. One of the ways we help organisations get past this, and bring their strategies to life, is to use real-life examples from within their own business. We help them find and share stories and specific examples of these abstract concepts in action, which helps them to understand and apply them. In other words, the stories help them to make the abstractions ‘concrete’.
Rumelt believes that the mark of “true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable.” That’s what we’re aiming to achieve using stories.

2 Responses to “Bad strategy”

  1. Andrew Miller Says:

    I like this idea of making the abstract concrete, and I think it would be cool to push it a little further (perhaps you have already).
    In addition to using stories to make existing strategies understandable and allow employees to apply them, what if stories were used to help create the strategy in the first place, before any abstractions are even discussed? I’m wondering what it would be like if strategy development started with the concrete narratives of what is already happening that we strategically desire (or don’t), as stories shared between leaders, well before a strategy became codified or expressed in abstract terms. (I suspect this is probably inevitably the case for new start-ups, and I believe strategising is always informed in any organisation by informal ongoing story-sharing.)
    And pushing it a little further still: what if an organisation simply never abstracted from the concrete? What if the management expression of their strategy was simply an official collection of stories? No abstract ‘Strategy’ at all.
    Perhaps that’s a step too far… we all enjoy our abstractions as part of sense-making, we are comforted by goals and visions (even though they change constantly) and it does call into disturbing question what strategy really is. (Other than the shared stories we claim fall within or outside some pattern of abstractions.)

  2. Daryl Cook Says:

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for adding to my thoughts. We use stories in both senses – for sense-making and building alignment and clarity and also to build a strategic narrative to help make it clear and easy to communicate (tell). I really like your phrase “management expression of their strategy was simply an official collection of stories” … in essence that’s what we’re trying to do.