New Approaches to Strategy for the 21st century

A discussion paper by Brian Brader

Strategy is a key tool of leadership. As the future becomes more uncertain new strategies approaches are needed to overcome the inherent weaknesses of traditional models. Building on my discussion paper which explores a new strategies leadership paradigm for uncertain times, this article aims to stimulate further debate about how established business processes can be refocused to support the 21st century leader.

Weaknesses of  the traditional  strategy model

There are many interpretations of the term “Strategy”.    Broadly, it is traditionally seen as a long-term plan focused on achieving a defined goal.     So it can be regarded as a key tool of leadership intended to translate some particular vision of the future into some more tangible elements which will allow stepwise progress towards delivering it.   Because  developing and carrying out such a strategic plan is a core part of  the business process in  most organisations,   it makes sense  to consider how this might be adapted to meet the needs of a 21st century leader.   However, let us be clear first that  the current
strategy model has at least two fundamental weaknesses:
(1)   planning itself is a mechanical kind of process which is at odds with the need to encourage creativity and innovation.  Strategy should be a much more dynamic process than can be encapsulated in a rigid plan.
(2)   Strategies generally focus on delivering a single vision of the future (the “preferred” scenario perhaps) and so are unrealistic in not reflecting the high levels of uncertainty and the possibility (or likelihood even) of other futures emerging.

A new strategies approach to strategy therefore needs to build on the commitment that exists within organisations for the current process while redirecting it into avenues which will help to overcome these weaknesses.

Effective strategies for uncertain times

If a strategy is to support our new strategies leadership style it will need to focus much more on desired outcomes and the core values to be sustained in achieving them.     A new-style strategy will also need to capture the key uncertainties likely to be faced in delivering these outcomes in future and the challenges these represent.   It will not be a delivery plan but will instead chart areas for exploration and learning which are  needed to enable the organisation to flourish in the long-term.  Some short-term steps to help with this are likely to be identified.  As with the new strategies  leadership style, however, ambiguity and lack of understanding will be clearly seen, not covered over by a gloss of false bravado as is so often the case in traditional strategy documents.

In terms of established strategy theory,  this new strategies approach is perhaps closest to the Strategic Incrementalisation Perspective described for example by de Wit and Meyer  (de Wit and Meyer, Strategy Process, Content and Context Thomson Learning 2008).    They see it as “…flexibly shaping the course of action by gradually blending together initiatives into a coherent pattern ..”.   It is of course a continuous process where a powerful learning feedback loop informs the next iteration.  The new strategies strategy will not be a straightjacket to constrain initiative but a framework to guide it and enable it to flourish.

So the key elements of  a new strategies 21st century strategy would need to include:

1) About the organisation:

  • A description of the new strategies  dynamic strategy development process, how it will improve the organisation’s  ability to cope with future uncertainty and how it will be used, including linkage to other internal business processes such as objective setting and performance reviews, balanced scorecards and risk management strategiessystems.
  • A discussion of the organisation’s “current state
  • A statement of the organisation’s purpose or mission
  • An explanation of the core values to be sustained

2)  The future environment:
  • Discussion of changes already happening which certainly need to be taken into account
  • Analysis of the main uncertainties currently seen as affecting the organisation’s future
  • Exploration of potential alternative futures,  how they would differ from the present and from each other, and how you will know if they are beginning to happen (i.e. what are the key leading  indicators).   
  • Consideration of the challenges and opportunities these futures would present and whether any “best of all worlds” possibilities exist
  • Your "vision" of where the organisation should aspire to be in future.
3) Your strategic response:
  • Identify aspects where more information is needed – whether through horizon scanning, research or business intelligence gathering (e.g. tracking key indicators). This could also helpfully cover the use of learning networks and a learning organisation and the important role of analysis and of the relationship between analysts and policymakers.
  • Discussion of what you can and cannot control or influence, and actions you can take now to prepare for the future and encourage or discourage certain outcomes.   Recognition of where the uncertainties lie outside your control and you must be prepared for the alternative futures if they arise.
  • Consideration of the impact of this strategic analysis on the approach, structure and make-up of the organisation.   This should explore the implications of the new strategies leadership style, the need for others to assume leadership roles, for leaders to enable and support them,  for all to contribute to improving the organisation’s understanding of  key uncertainties and  for innovative and incremental approaches to be encouraged and the blame-culture and risk appetite to be adjusted to match.
  • What new strategies skills need to be developed in future whether  to adapt to the new strategies dynamic strategic style (anticipatory and adaptive skills), to improve understanding of the key uncertainties or to meet the  particular new strategies challenges or seize the new strategies opportunities  identified in the strategy.
  • What strategic partnerships would help with  learning about the future and  achieving your outcomes
  • Discussion of what the current priorities should be in light of the strategy.

If you are prepared to accept that uncertainty increasingly dominates future planning then you might like to consider  a more evolutionary and dynamic approach to leadership and strategy development such as has been described above.  Many strategic futures tools exist to support your exploration of this complex territory.
New Approaches to Strategy for the 21st century
New Approaches to Strategy for the 21st century

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