What a beautiful, and highly abused, concept, strategy is.
Beautiful, because strategy, in its basic form, entails three stimulating exercises.
The first is identifying what one really wants – one’s objectives in a specific time period. The second is developing routes towards these objectives. And the third is thinking about one’s resources to be used on these routes, towards these objectives.
Of course, one’s objectives change, with age, the accumulation of experiences, revealing encounters, and flashes of insights.
The routes also change – whether as a result of the evolving objectives, or because forks in the road open up new routes we did not know existed. And invariably, whatever one’s objectives are, there are routes one knows absolutely nothing about.
The most interesting changes are those in resources, for their change is a function of the changes in objectives and routes. This might sound counter-intuitive, as many think of resources as givens, or as inputs towards objectives. But, it does not work like that. The reality is that, the better we understand ourselves (and therefore, the truer we formulate our objectives), and the more maturely we interact with our world, the more profound and faster our personal resources evolve.
They become sharper, as in: the practical applications of our resources become better matched to our more-accurately-defined objectives. This does not happen only because we have developed a deeper understanding of ourselves and become maturer. It happens, equally, because our interactions with our world have become more attuned to our true wants. Consequently, our resources become resourceful. A tango between our needs and their applications begin.
Going through this journey, with its mental milestones and tangible experiences, is a real education in strategy. It is an iterative process – one that harnesses our genuine strengths, leverages on our true capabilities, and navigates us towards what we want (deep at our core).
Iterative is a key word. As Alice in wonderland kept pursuing different leads, and in doing so, explored new realms, the strategist here wanders around in the annals of his/her intellect and emotions. Most turns bring new insights (that is, sights that are in….visualisations of what is unseen). The turns could become too many. One might feel lost. And yet, as was the case with Alice, there is a meaning that is built from the accumulation of the insights. Its strongest manifestation becomes the concrete objectives that we see, rather than set. And the routes we take internally to see these objectives save us a lot of time and energy in the outside world, where these objectives are realised.
Most modern writers on strategy ignore that dive into our internal world, and focus on the routes towards the set-objectives. Interestingly, some of the most successful strategists – for example, military commanders who led tens of thousands on battlefields – saw that internal dive as a crucial ingredient for success. As an Islamic military commander put it, in the seventh century: “we not only advance into the opponent’s territories; we go into our realms of faith.”
Strategy started to suffer abuse as it became the buzziest of buzzy words in business.
Three abuses were particularly bad.
First, it became a standardised discipline. Standardisation works in procedural or transactional fields – say, accounting and finance. It does not work in a domain based on the creativity emanating from exploring one’s own universe of true potential and resources. There, standardisation becomes a stifling factor; we follow a map of a set route while walking a terra incognita (that’s our internal world of wonder).
Second, strategy became a highly lucrative business. Consulting firms, of different focuses and scopes, printed money selling models of commercial success and organisational efficiency. Few have value. Mostly, because these models and ways of thinking see the surface of what strategy is about. They are primarily about developing processes and charting routes. They ignore mining our imagination (whether individual or groups), which reveals the richness buried in our intellectual and emotional depths – which is key to sustainable long-term success.
The third abuse was linguistic. Strategists, especially in business schools and consulting firms, developed a language around their conceptions of strategy. From ‘Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – to scenario-planning-and-assessment, to various forms of managed disruptions, to evolving from good to great’ - some ideas were decent guidelines – something akin to general advices an elderly man might give to a young relative starting on a journey. But the language here indicated prescribed processes, when there is no standardised process. The language here created the illusion of a map, when the journey was into an unknown. And when the uninitiated delved into “strategy”, some took the terms of the language as instructions….the result, especially in the world of business and finance, was often on the borderline between tragedy and farce.
Whether a strategy is being developed for one’s own, or for a large group’s, growth, the first route is internal: understanding one’s, or a large majority’s, real wants and desires. Those form true objectives. And those would never be comprehended without taking a long journey into one’s own mind. The rose petals would sway with the wind of insight to reveal the bud - where the colour and smell originate. An inner wonder, that can multiply and create more wonders, would come into view. It would chart your unique strategic approach to your unique objectives.