Not Even Wrong – Initial thoughts on strategy 2

July 2014
Stockholm @ the office

It’s been an interesting summer of reading. I was on holiday after all, so I gave myself a long leash and permitted my mind to wander. I ended up investigating my hunch that the way organizations think about strategy can have a profound impact on how they think about all the other aspects outlined in my model-in-progress. This is most certainly not a revolutionary thought, yet I felt I needed a bit more background on the very concept of business strategy to better understand the mechanisms that I sense are in play. I have a feeling that the underlying world view that constitute the basis of strategy is a bit of a blind spot for many organizations, to speak in terms of johari windows and all. I’m basically suggesting that many organizations unknowingly embraces strategic thinking that is based on world views that are not congruent with the world view of the organization.

This research led me down a path where I explored the history of business strategy, rather than the practice of business strategy itself. Mintzbergs Strategy Safari and Walter Kiechels Lords of Strategy were great companions on the journey.

On this journey, to my great and admittedly smug satisfaction, I found ample evidence supporting my long held belief that business strategy as a concept rests on rather shaky foundations. As you may know, there are several schools of strategy and they cannot seem to agree with each other on even the fundamentals. They are, as one author remarked,  “remarkably inconclusive”.

For anyone interested in Systems Thinking and Holism, the conception of business strategy becomes the starting point of it all, as every initiative or plan designed by the organization flows from the strategy – and more importantly – and this is my point – the strategy therefore carries with it the underlying beliefs that is allowed to guide the strategic process further into the fabric of the organization. It follows then, that identifying how the organization thinks about “strategy as concept” is a way towards understanding the fundamental world view that will, via the strategy, permeate the entire organization. I would venture a guess that this is not something that all too many organizations sit down and have a chat about, which further suggest that these underlying mental models and world views are left unexamined and most likely unknown to the organizations themselves.

Researching how the idea of business strategy itself –  and the later different flavors of strategy – emerged is immensely entertaining. For you who are happily unaware, suffice it to say that had you been there in the 1960’s when the idea of business strategy was conceived (in a joint effort of the management consulting firms and Harvard Business School) I would have excused you for remarking rather irreverently “Wow guys, you’re just making this shit up as you go, don’t you”. Because they were.

Fast forward a few years, and I would not have admonished you for saying “Wow guys, these things that you propose, they don’t really work do they?” Because quite often, they just didn’t.

One major take away from these studies is how severely  a classic prescriptive strategy mindset conflicts with the strategy-as-learning perspective. Implicit in the prescriptive schools of thought is the idea of strict hierarchies, top down, command-and-control and other – from my perspective – unwanted elements. The question I’m exploring is to what extent – if at all – the organizations’ take on strategy can be a constraining factor in our drive towards change and the future of work.

Further more, if the idea of generic prescriptive strategies is firmly in place in the minds of managers, there’s every reason to suspect that the dangerous idea of generic best practice also lands in fertile soil. The idea of organizations as complex adaptive systems finding themselves well within a complex context must seem awfully alien to such a mind.

To sum up: There’s a potential mismatch between the world view that created some of the strategy ideas now in use, and the actual world view of organizations. This might create dissonance. And as the novel practice of business strategy was exported to all corners of our globe, that movement seem also to have exported a set of beliefs and values that I deem to be detrimental to the idea of the modern workplace.

One might even say that they’re #notevenwrong

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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2 thoughts on “Not Even Wrong – Initial thoughts on strategy

  • Bob Marshall

    An interesting topic for me. I’m having some difficulty understanding what you might mean by the phrase ” the actual world view of organisations.” and hence the distinction you’re drawing between “the world view that created some of the strategy ideas now in use, and the actual world view of organisations”. Personally, I see these generally as very congruent – both being what I’d describe as “Analytic”.

    – Bob

  • Thomas Post author

    Hello Bob!

    Thank you for your contribution, and for helping me think. My thought was that there are organizations that have evolved towards “higher” states – or to use the terminology of rightshifting – have moved to the right in terms of how they organize themselves, and how they think about work. Yet, these very same organizations might very well be using the strategic models and ideas developed by the business schools / management consulting firms of the past. These ideas sprung from a different mindset than the mindset that today push organizations to a more “sophisticated” evolutionary state – to the right. My hypotheses then, is that the strategic models and ideas in use are basically keeping the organization from evolving at the rate it could be evolving. Does this clarify my thinking? And would you agree?