Strategy has often been confused with efficiency. If your ‘strategy’ is to be ‘efficient’ you have the wrong strategy. Efficiency is today nothing more than an organisational hygiene factor; when it comes to securing a competitive advantage, efficiency is necessary but not sufficient. More is needed. Jules Goddard of London Business School suggests that strategy is, ‘the rare and precious skill of staying one step ahead of the need to be efficient’.
Strategy is about original thinking – or as American biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgy observed, ‘Discovery consists in seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought’. Our strategies ought to be built on such ‘discovery’. For the most part they aren’t.
Michael Porter insists that strategy is not about being better at what you do (that is efficiency) but rather, it is about setting yourself apart from the competition. I was at a retail conference once where a speaker suggested to the assembled retailers that they didn’t need to be ‘the best’ (in their market) but rather they should strive to be, ‘the favourite’.
Your strategy should be about being different at what you do and is why we need to embrace the mavericks and ensure our environments provide the air to be innovative, experimental and creative. The problem is that for the most part our environments simply aren’t innovative, experimental or creative.
We are suffocated by industrial age wisdom and management methodologies that are failing to engage our workforce (what a terrible word…how about ‘partners’ instead?) and energise them in a way that makes us want to show up for work. Of course this is far more challenging in certain environments than others but it shouldn’t stop us from trying to attain such ideals.
There are no ‘rules’ as to how to do this and anyone who attempts suggesting that there is a theory or formula for such, is a fraud. German philosopher, Immanuel Kant suggested that one ought to, ‘dare to think for yourself’. In many instances we have stopped doing that within our businesses. Goddard believes that the concept of best practice is perhaps the single most ‘value-destructive idea to have come out of business schools and management consultancies over the past 20 years’. That is a strong statement given the enshrined status afforded the concept and practice of ‘best practice’. Yet, he is right!
Business is not about ‘best practice’, which has us only measuring ourselves against those ‘in the race with us’. History shows that all too often the ‘winner’ is the ‘late newcomer’ or disruptive force that implodes the current status quo, challenges the traditional business model assumptions and effectively changes the ‘rules of the game’. Business is about unique practices and rather than be guarding and perpetuating the efficient ‘status quo’ good leadership seeks to disrupt the existing status quo. We need to measure success by the value added rather than merely the profit gained. A profit focus will result in us losing our way as surely as any journey in which you only ever turn left will result in going nowhere.
Leaders serious about being future fit need to throw out the rubbish that has been on boarded in the name of strategy and all the multiple business-speak that leads to cliques and closed-minded thinking – or often to no thinking at all! It is a word and concept pollution that threatens to clog our business artery with fatal results.
Leaders serious about being future fit will need to be willing to disconnect from much of the prevailing business ‘wisdom’ and focus on value-adds rather than profit. They will need no small amount of courage to under-take such a decoupling and certainly the road towards intentional disruption, unique thinking and curiosity.
The challenges have never been greater for leaders – from navigating the volatile and uncertain geopolitical forces that are reshaping current reality to engaging Millennials. But no-one has ever said that leading in todays connected and interdependent world would every been easy. Leadership thinking and practice needs to be rethought and what our organisations look like will need some brave reform and transformation.
There would be six practical things that you, as a leader, can try should you agree with these thoughts. Here would be some for you consideration:
- Intentionally build a sense of curiosity into your team’s / organisation’s DNA. Have team members have one ‘curious conversation’ every week or month. A ‘curious conversation’ is where they intentionally seek out someone from whom they have something to learn. The conversation is set-up, can take 30-40 minutes and is anchored by a specific lead question. The concept is presented in Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind. Grazer is a Hollywood producer who has spent a lifetime pursuing curious conversations. Developing this as a habit will lead to good things including looking to learn, ask questions and an open mind. For some curiosity comes naturally, for many it has been shutdown, trampled and needs to be invited out from the shadows. Curiosity might have ‘killed the cat’ but let me remind you that a cat has ‘nine lives’!
- Read Jules Goddard & Tony Eccles’ excellent book already mentioned, ‘uncommon sense. Common nonsense’. It has been my privilege to work with Jules and in fact will soon be doing so yet again on a leadership programme in Cape Town, South Africa. Leaders read, and if you find yourself too busy to read then you are too busy. Read smartly and get others in your team reading on behalf of your business. Start a book club and find ways to channel the best to emerge from what is read into your strategic thinking stream. Anyone can and should be able to join the book club and just ensure that the right kind of books make up the soil from which the growth occurs.
- Track how many questions are asked in your leadership meetings. Really, count them. You may be shocked at how seldom genuine questions that lead to deeper engagement, that spark inquiry and invite others into the conversation are actually asked during your meetings. Opinions dominate and all too often we develop a meeting culture that at best is devoid of questions and at worst, intolerant of questions being asked.
- Start unlikely and reverse mentoring programmes. Pair diverse people together – people across age, culture and task constraints for short, sharp interactions. You might need to training to set this up and prepare the ground for such an initiative but doing this will achieve multiple and unforeseen benefits. It will get people across your organisation talking, learning and building relationships. It will lead to new insights and actions. In TomorrowToday we developed an entire resource to help in this kind of process called ‘START Conversations’. Indeed, start conversations!
- Create an award for the biggest learning to emerge from a failure. We go to great lengths to reward success but if you truly want to be an innovative organisation then rewarding experimentation is important. Failure that puts a hole beneath the waterline isn’t smart nor is repeated failure but if you aren’t failing you aren’t innovating.
- Ask the question: what might we be missing because of what we are measuring? You get what you measure and in most organisations today we pretty much measure everything! Problem is we often want something different by way of a mind-set or behaviour but because it doesn’t form part of the metrics in place, it simply doesn’t happen. How metrics have become a trap and nowhere is this more apparent than in how we measure leadership development programmes. Our metrics are in serious need of overhaul and this conversation is a leadership – and not an HR, conversation.
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