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Asking the right questions

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A friend of mine asked me the other day “What is strategy?”.

It’s a great question. It’s a question I remember asking one of my mentors over 20 years ago. We were working for a consultancy and together we had just completed a fairly significant strategy exercise for our client, one of the big six accounting firms. We were in the pub having a quiet drink to celebrate. Perhaps I was asking the question a little late?

And I admit now I didn’t understand his answer. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Now, twenty years later, I think I understand what he said. I think he was saying that strategy is in three parts:

  1. finding direction – developing vision, and mission, that sort of thing;
  2. choosing the route you are going to use to get there, and steering;
  3. doing it – implementing the strategy.

The first and last are relatively easy to understand, even if they are not easy to do. But the middle one is, in my opinion, the really tricky one.

Tricky because it requires different skills. Skills of analysis, connecting things, and seeing the big picture, to name but a few.

And even if you have access to these skills it requires something else, something that is sometimes in short supply in organisations: courage and confidence.

Courage and confidence to trust one’s instincts and ask what strategy is. Know that what other people call strategy probably isn’t. It may be tactics. It may mean simply blindly following a vision, without making any difficult choices.

Courage and confidence to stop whatever habitual busyness you have, and take a long cool look at yourself, your world and what is happening in it.

Courage and confidence to see clearly, despite the pressure that social systems put on us to conform and ignore reality.

Courage and confidence  to work with others and trust others, in such a way that a shared choice can emerge. The world is so complicated I really doubt whether strategy can be done alone.

Courage and confidence to go it alone. Effective strategy is usually a lonely path. You (and your colleagues) won’t be following the crowd.

Courage and confidence.

Setting direction takes courage and confidence too. It’s not easy to be what we most want to be.

Implementing your strategy takes courage and confidence too. To take the first steps. And the next steps, and the next. This requires tremendous effort – to overcome the inertia and resistance that exists in organisations of any size.

So maybe that is what strategy really is: courage and confidence?

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Author: Pete Burden

Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Coach I am an experienced strategy, leadership and organisational coach. I work with the MDs of purpose-led businesses - people using the freedom, flexibility, and practicality of business to disrupt the world in positive ways.

5 thoughts on “Asking the right questions

  1. or to put it more starkly maybe, it means saying No – No to a bit of short term business that diverts you, no to a peripheral project that may be interesting but isn’t part of your strategy and even No to some short term rewards that stops the strategic development. All tough to do, especially at the moment. Prof Porter refers to this in his works on strategy and I’m certainly finding this the hardest part.

  2. I wonder what might be the ways to overcome this toughness?

  3. great post Pete – bang on. Agree with Phil’s point too. Reminded me of the Good to Great chapter on the Flywheel and the Doom loop, some good pointers in there.

  4. One of my clients said to me a while back that his organisation should bin strategy, because they were really good at talking about what they would do, planning for it, but never actually getting down to it.

    Your piece also reminded me that what often gets lost in the conversations around strategy is the starting one: what question are we attempting to answer with this strategy? Without clarity around that, and robust debate, any strategy will be built on shakey foundations.

  5. Pingback: Best posts – year by year | Conscious-Business.co.uk

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