Cipher Brief Expert Sean Corbett retired from the Royal Air Force in September 2018 after a 30-year career as a professional intelligence officer. His last appointment in the military was a two-year rotation in Washington DC where he served as the first non-US Deputy Director of a major US Intelligence Agency.
Only a few years ago articles on strategy would have been dominant on business related forums, but the word ‘strategy’ now seems to have fallen out of the vernacular. Why is this? Trends come and go, and right now a great deal of business focus is on innovation, artificial intelligence, modern working practices, and the mental health of the workforce. All are highly valid, and as key enablers, deserve the attention they get, but on their own, they do not guarantee the success of a business proposition.
One of the main reasons for paying lip service to strategy is that it is poorly understood and even less likely to be implemented effectively, and therefore the value of laying out and executing a well-founded strategy is not recognised. I have been struck by the number of business leaders who claim to have a strategy when in fact they mistake a vision or a mission statement as strategy.
Having a coherent, outcome focused and well communicated strategy remains as important as ever as a key to success. Easily said but developing and implementing an effective strategy is hard and requires discipline, dedicated resources and staying power, all of which are reasons it does not get the attention it deserves. And it must be a living thing, within the DNA of the organisation, understood, regularly reviewed, and bought into by all.
But what is strategy? Library shelves are full of weighty, sometimes dull and often unintelligible tomes about strategy (some more useful than others), but at its most basic level, strategy combines the ‘what’ with the ‘how’ to achieve a well-defined, long term goal. Not to be confused with activities or tactics, good strategy combines all of these in a coherent manner in pursuit of a common aim.
A good example to bring this to life is a Formula One racing team. The strategic end-state (the goal) for a top team may be to win the world championship for a given season, or a longer period. Success requires the coordination of many different elements. A winning car design is clearly fundamental, but this requires an engineering effort that balances engine power, aerodynamic handling, chassis construction, reliability, and driveability. Different teams will be working on each of these activities but will need to interact closely with each other to ensure that developments in one area do not negatively impact efforts in others. In parallel, another team will be working on short-term upgrades to be added during the season as technology and research and development allow. By the end of the season, the car will often be significantly different to that which started it.
Long term goals need to be closely aligned to tactical achievements and for each race, the set-up will need to be optimised to account for the impact of different track layouts, weather conditions and tyre allocations. Other factors, such as marketing, recruitment and personnel management and logistics are all important in achieving the long-term goal. All this needs to be achieved within a tightly defined budget. Every other team will be following a similar path to achieve the same outcome so scrutiny of the opposition is also important.
As indicated in the Formula One example, a good strategy should start with a clearly defined and measurable end-state, but also key to its success is cohering each of its constituent elements to the common goal, which requires full buy-in by the staff. That can be surprisingly difficult to achieve and starts with clear and effective, company-wide communication.
Effective communication is probably one of the most inconsistently applied and under-estimated tools available, both in aligning employees to the strategic aim and to ensure that the available resource is applied effectively in the right place at the right time. It needs to be consistent, interactive, regularly reinforced and to include the why, not just the what.
Importantly, it also requires the strategy owner to be receptive and responsive to input that may highlight a need to adjust lines of development. Good strategy is further characterised by clear and timely decision-making, in which all known factors are weighed up to determine the best way ahead.
Uncertainty is a common feature in formulating strategy, and very rarely will every relevant factor be either identifiable, quantifiable, or available in a binary way that facilitates a clear course of action. The strategist therefore needs to be able to deal with ambiguity and not be constrained by it, making informed decisions at the appropriate time, without making the perfect the enemy of the good.
It is often more comfortable to delay decisions to wait for all information to be available, but that can result in inertia and lost opportunities. Equally, reacting hastily to changing circumstances can be highly disruptive to achieving the strategy, and can waste valuable resource and effort. There is a fine line in staying true to the strategy and adapting to emerging circumstances. Good strategy will always include an element of risk and identifying, articulating and contingency planning either to reduce the chances of those risks occurring or to be able to mitigate them if they manifest.
Other key elements leading to a good strategy include the early alignment of available resources with tasks and activities and a comprehensive and detailed competitive analysis. Monitoring progress, and where necessary, testing and adjusting, is equally crucial, if conducted in the right way. A formal red-teaming process can anticipate and inform many of the risks to the strategy but has to include 2 essential elements; those forming the red-team must be completely committed to strategic success and they must have access to all the available data, business units, stakeholders and staff. Their role is a difficult one, in which they must balance the need to objectively identify, qualify and communicate major weaknesses with the plan without demoralising the staff or being so zealous as to prevent progress.
Conceptually, therefore, strategy is a relatively straightforward concept, involving the coherence of ends, ways and means to deliver a well-defined, long-term goal. But in practical terms, developing an effective strategy requires dedicated effort, a methodical approach, ownership and direction from the top, buy-in from the entire team and regular and formal review. Easier said than done.
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