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Businesses are supposed to have a strategy. I don’t think the martial metaphor is particularly helpful, but broadly speaking we can agree it’s important that managers have some kind of plan to take the business forward.

Then again “broadly speaking” is a problem. We need to be more rigorous in our understanding of what is and is not a plausible business strategy.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the unsurprising news that Microsoft’s share of the mobile market is dwindling quickly. Microsoft would say that it’s made a strategic decision not to worry about mobile for the moment, and to concentrate instead on building a software platform which can work across large and small devices. Whether or not this is a smart strategy remains to be seen.

You could also say that Lidl and Aldi have followed a clear strategy in their successful entry to the UK market, offering good quality at low prices by working from smaller outlets with fewer lines. It’s proved the right strategy for these economically depressed times and has left the incumbent majors struggling to hold market share.

Product v “culture”

These ideas can sensibly be called strategies because they reflect real choices, and come from a framework which will determine future decisions. It’s no accident that they are essentially product strategies, because products are the obvious and tangible determinants of market position (the necessary object of business strategy).

They sit in contrast to a very different kind of strategic statement, which typically purports to seek market leadership through staff excellence, aligned cultural values and so on. This is the kind of “strategic” thinking which typically gets wrapped up with mission, vision and value statements. It’s not just practically meaningless, but much of the time a damaging distraction.

There’s a form of logic behind it, which starts from the observation that things are moving so fast we can’t sensibly plan for the future: that it’s more important to create a culture of innovation and business agility so you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable events, so that you lead the market where you can, and adapt to change effectively when you must.

It all sounds reasonable, but in many ways it’s pious verbiage. What’s a “culture of innovation” as opposed to simply being innovative? Do you really want or need such innovation in every part of the business, or just in product development and marketing? These have to be serious questions. Flexibility or agility can only matter if you already have a plan which you’re going to need to adjust to changing conditions; flexibility is a condition, not a plan in itself.

The alignment problem

Do businesses really confuse these terms? Unfortunately many do, and they compound the error by demanding “alignment” of staff with that strategy, however vaguely or poorly conceived it might be.

This “alignment” is mostly seen as the primary goal of internal communication, a means of motivating staff in the right way. But what would such “alignment” actually mean?

If you’re talking about a product strategy then the notion of alignment is immediately irrelevant.

If you’re working in Lidl how could you be “aligned” with the idea of selling fewer, good quality products in smaller stores? For that matter, how could you be misaligned with it?

It is important that all your staff get information about what you’re trying to achieve, for a few reasons. Obviously some people (for instance buyers) will have to understand the place of their choices and actions in pushing the strategy forward. This is essential operational information.

Knowledge as reassurance

For most others the strategy might matter in a different way. It might matter within Microsoft to reassure staff that management knows what it’s doing as everyone watches the company’s smartphone market share plunge. It might be useful if staff can explain this rationale to themselves and others. But it’s complicating things unhelpfully to call this kind of knowledge “alignment”. Nor are you attempting to turn staff into “brand ambassadors”. Again, to speak in this way is to complicate and blur expectations needlessly and unrealistically. In a supermarket you might want your checkout staff to be cheerful and helpful to customers. You might even want them to be enthusiastic about the quality of your products. If you put things in this way it becomes much more obvious what you might need to do in terms of communication and training (which might at a subtler level include the identification, cultivation and placement of peer influencers).

But if in contrast your overt “strategy” is about something less tangible, this clarity evaporates. You’ll be in the same old hopeless place of trying to present a set of top-down but poorly-defined management obsessions as something people can own for themselves, which too often is what managements really seem to mean by alignment.

(By the way, holding company-wide workshops in which operational teams are asked to translate your values or concepts into something meaningful in their daily work is not “bottom up” communication. As Leandro Herrero has pointed out, all this kind of work does is relocate a top down message to a different location. It might help people understand what you’re trying to do, assuming it makes sense, but it won’t create ownership or engagement.)

Strategy and corporate purpose

Things only get worse when this fuzzy notion of strategy gets muddled up with ideas about corporate purpose. Although I believe Microsoft has an interesting and defensible product strategy, its grandiose talk of “reinventing productivity” is patronising, and more than a little ridiculous in its confusion of product features and social purpose.

It’s also counterproductive. There’s a separate rationale for corporate purpose, and while you’d want to be sure that your strategy was consistent with that purpose, they are very different things: business strategy must always have a commercial objective.

Even a commercial objective can be a lever for engagement. Most of us will more motivated in a task if we know why we’re doing it, and how it’s going to serve the organisation’s interests. This much is apparent and if it was all that people meant by “alignment” it would be uncontentious (albeit a pretentious way of putting it). But it is routinely mixed with a much fuzzier and broader concept of behavioural uniformity, which has the contrary effect of making all those management messages seem like they’re coming from another planet.

And repeating them ad nauseum is, well, nauseating, or at least will make you look stupid.

So let’s be clear, because it seems there’s some need to state the obvious. A strategy is a framework to guide commercial choices, built on insight into how the market is developing. It’s likely to be focused on product or service development and positioning. Decisions and choices within the business need to be taken in line with the strategy, but staff themselves cannot be “aligned” like cogs in a machine. To speak this way is to misdescribe the communication task. Staff need to know about the strategy, for varying reasons. Some of them may be motivated by this knowledge, some may not, and the work of motivation (or engagement) has to be addressed separately.

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