Truly innovative strategy must emanate from more than objective analysis.
Over the course of the past two decades, it has become increasingly, abundantly clear that companies must find ways to be more innovative, more flexible and better prepared. Yet despite a steady supply of new jargon, models and techniques, the practices by which most companies create strategy have by and large not helped firms become more prepared for the unexpected. They remain mired in the mind-set of a very different and less complex competitive era. Strategy has been reduced to calculation and analysis, nearly devoid of the imaginative spark that could bring it to life.
For the development and communication of strategy to become the inspired and inspiring process it must be, it is up to company leaders to alter their strategizing practices in three crucial, perhaps counterintuitive, ways.
Be more subjective and less generic. Strategy theory and practice have always prized rational analysis and increasingly given it precedence over the wisdom born of experience. Consequently, strategy jargon, tools and practices have become homogenized, and strategies often represent generic constructs rather than the unique stance of a company’s leadership. To create vibrant strategy, leaders have to create a culture that recognizes the valuable contribution, beyond purely objective thinking, that every strategist can make. Necessary analysis and assessments of facts should not be an excuse to avoid taking personal stances on critical matters. Facts should not be used to obscure or negate people’s practical wisdom. If strategies are to be deeply insightful and keenly motivational, they must have an intuitive, subjective and imaginative component.
Explore new ways to stimulate insights and communication. Ever since the 1960s, strategists have been relying on abstract bubbles, grids and arrows to convey the essence of their businesses. The tradition of presenting strategies in textual and visual formats such as slide presentations and reports must be complemented with media more attuned to how people make sense of the world. Because knowledge stems from all our senses, not just from a “disembodied mind,” kinesthetic processes often can access deeper insights than can verbal or written communication. When we use our hands, millions of neurons fire to help us describe, create and challenge what we are touching. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have drawn upon established learning psychology to help many managers to “craft sense” of a variety of business challenges: The act of assembling objects in a carefully guided process — such as a three-dimensional model of the firm in its competitive landscape — can stimulate strategists to see the familiar in new ways and even create entirely new understandings of what needs to be done. Leaders who encourage experimentation with such practices can dramatically improve how strategies are developed, visualized and communicated, as well as understood.
Recognize that context matters. Onsite or offsite, strategizing is primarily confined to meeting rooms with laptops, PC projectors, video links, flipcharts and strong coffee. But a familiar meeting room at headquarters or a conference center is not necessarily the best place to stimulate and access people’s imaginations, personal insights or their ability to make sense of a situation. In all endeavors, even the serious work of creating strategy, people are inspired — perhaps to breakthrough thinking — by their surroundings. Imagination is intertwined with our senses: Visions, goals and priorities look, sound, feel and smell very differently in the repair shop, call center or the reception area of a major client or supplier. Leaders should encourage strategists to break the old conventions of the strategizing milieu, thereby enabling them to make new connections between themselves, the task and the team.
Corporate fascination with tedious analyses, spreadsheets and endless slideshows should be losing its luster, as it has often led to nothing but flawed and uninspired strategy. It is up to dissatisfied leaders to question the conventional formula and reinvent the components of strategy creation by engaging more of what makes people human — our imagination.