Leaders, is your organisation strategy-less? 1

Guest blogger:

Dr Alex WrightAlex Wright, Lecturer in Strategic Management at The Open University Business School. 

Research I have been conducting recently along with that of my colleague, Professor Peet Venter of UNISA in South Africa, has thrown up an interesting finding – the existence of the strategy-less organisation.

As strategy researchers, we tend to assume that all organisations will be doing at least some strategy-work all of the time. We accept that there will be times when the level and intensity of strategising will tail off, for example, when a major strategic initiative has been achieved and the effects of that achievement require bedding down in the organisation. However, Peet and I, independently of each other, both observed something a bit more long-lasting and possibly a bit more concerning.

We observed prolonged periods of organisational activity when strategy and strategy-related issues did not appear to influence or make a difference to what was happening in the organisations.

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by strategy and what I do not.

I do not see strategy as restricted to a plan, as something an organisation has. If that were the case it could reasonably be argued that if an organisation has a strategic plan, then it can never be strategy-less.

Primarily, I see strategy as something people do; as practices in pursuit of some long term organisational goal or objective. In this framing, I argue, an absence of strategy-work can result in organisations becoming strategy-less, and this is what we both observed.

Looking in the strategy literature to see if anyone had researched strategic inactivity in the past, we found one paper. Andrew Inkpen and Nandan Choudhury published a paper in Strategic Management Journal in 1995 speculating that the strategy-less organisation was a very real phenomenon and called for strategy researchers to take up the baton and study the topic. However, this call has been ignored, so apart from Inkpen and Choudhury’s paper, no other piece of research has been written on strategy absence, as far as I can tell.

This is unfortunate, as our knowledge of any phenomena increases by understanding when it is not present as well as when it is.

Inkpen and Choudhury advanced the idea that strategic voids in organisations could occur for one of three reasons:

  • due to leadership ineffectiveness, i.e. leaders not engaging in strategy-work
  • due to organisations having natural work cycles, which means there will always be times when strategy-work does not take place; and
  • due to conscious decisions taken by senior managers not to undertake strategy-related activity.

I will concentrate on the first of these, leadership ineffectiveness, and relate this to what Peet and I observed.

leadership_highlightedWe both found that a lack of senior management involvement in strategy-work resulted in an absence of strategic practice in the organisations we researched. In the one I studied this seemed to be because leaders associated strategy-work with formulating strategy only and appeared to have little interest in whether the strategy they formulated was being implemented. I think this stems from the idea that strategy formulation and implementation are seen as separate activities and are the responsibility of different staff groups. Senior managers are the formulators, while middle and lower level managers and staff are the implementers. This thinking represents a separation, sometimes called a mind/body separation, first articulated by the philosopher René Descartes, who advocated a philosophical view that saw the body as subservient to the mind – the mind thought and the body acted out these thoughts. This philosophical outlook is called Cartesian thinking; and, while still influential, has been criticised and challenged in recent years for the artificial separation of thinking and doing. Why this philosophical diversion? Because this separation of thinking and doing is prevalent in much leadership theory – leaders think and followers do.

Peet came across another example of leadership ineffectiveness. The organisation he researched was enjoying huge success. It was operating in a buoyant industry and it was one of the leaders. However, Peet observed a lack of strategy-work, no one was talking about strategy and a major piece of government legislation was about to be brought in that would affect the whole industry, and yet, no consideration of this was evident in the meetings and conversations he observed. Here, a strategic void occurred because leaders were (over-)focusing on managing their success, and not paying enough attention to the longer-term. I can foresee a similar situation arising when leaders are experiencing tough times. Their focus on leading the organisation through the tough times, just as Peet’s leaders were focused on leading the success, can result in strategy-work suffering. Leading exclusively in the present can harm the organisation in the longer-term when major environmental changes are on the horizon and these are not being considered.

Strategy-less organisations, I feel, exist. I would like to hear from anyone who feels they have experienced or are experiencing life in an organisation where strategy-work is simply not being done. I am particularly keen to hear from leaders who would like to do more strategy-work, but feel the priorities they are currently grappling with do not allow them to.

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Further to the recent successful Leadership Masterclass, we are hosting a follow up online webinar on Tuesday 14 May 19.00 – 20.00 (BST), which will include all the highlights from the recent event, drawing on the contributions of our excellent speakers and inviting contributions from our online panellists.

The hour long webinar will introduce video highlights from the event and invite delegates to participate in Q&A and interactive polls to develop learning and understanding from the masterclass which focused on ‘Leadership in Tough Times: Confronting Complexity and Inspiring Hope’. Hear what our speakers had to say about the role of leadership in transforming complex organisations, leading growth against the odds, and inspiring optimism and wellbeing while the chips are down.

Our webinar panellists include Professor Jean Hartley, Professor of Public Leadership, OUBS; Dr Caroline Ramsey, Senior Lecturer in Management Practice, OUBS; and Richard Byford, Director, ForeVu Ltd. Facilitating this virtual event is Peter Wainwright, host of our two previous Business Perspectives webinars.

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