Is Strategy Dead?

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Is strategy dead? Some are reporting that it has, in fact, ceased to be.

One of the more prominent claimants is Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi. (You may know him as the “Lovemarks” guy.) Mr. Roberts had this to say at the Institute of Directors’ Annual Convention in 2012:

This gentleman says strategy is no more.

“Strategy is dead… The more time and money you spend devising strategies, the more time you are giving your rivals to start eating your lunch.”

In the same presentation, Mr. Roberts also declared “marketing is dead,” “the big idea is dead,” and “management is dead.” So I guess we can all go home now.

While guaranteed to grab headlines, maybe his statements aren’t as jarring as they’re meant to be. After all, many executives already act like they’re overseeing the death of strategy. If there’s no process within an organization to create strategy that works, then strategy doesn’t exist. And what’s called a “strategic plan” is, more precisely, “this year’s wish list.”

In my experience, there are two primary reasons given for the death of strategy. Let’s look at each.

“Things change too fast for any strategy to work!”

Ah, yes. Put another way: “We can’t completely predict the future, so why bother planning for it?”

Let’s consider what is arguably the fastest-changing sector today: Tech.

Who are some of the leaders in tech? Names like Google, Amazon and Apple should leap to mind.

Do you really think these titans got to where they are without strategy? That they merely reacted to what was happening around them? That they just got lucky?

Each of these organizations is a first-actor, not a reactor. They define what success looks like, and they place bets – often massive ones – where they believe in a return.

In doing so, these leaders exemplify a key point: Smart strategy shapes sectors. It delights consumers and alarms competitors.

Plus, we humans have a tendency to overstate the real rate of change. Yes, some industries are changing rapidly, but many haven’t really evolved in years. So don’t use “impending change” as an excuse for not doing the necessary strategic thinking.

“Our strategy could be wrong – so why bother?”

This is the kind of argument that 8-year-old Matthew employed when he didn’t want to clean his bedroom: “Why should I? It’ll just get dirty again!” It didn’t work in that case, and it doesn’t work in this one.

It’s true that no plan completely survives contact with the market. But a smart plan will be proven out much more fully than a lousy one. So one of your jobs as a business leader is to develop smart plans.

A strategy must make assumptions about the future. The more intelligence you gather, the better your assumptions. If your assumptions are often wrong, the problem is not with the field of strategy. It’s in your approach to it.

Smart Strategy Is Alive and Well

Certainly, the days of the month-long grind, resulting in the chiseled-in-stone strategic plan, are over. That’s not a function of accelerated change, by the way; that’s because that approach wasn’t optimal in the first place. So goodbye, and good riddance.

What is strategy? In simplest terms, it’s an integrated set of choices designed to win in the market.

Because strategy is about where to play and how to win, it’s the primary responsibility of business leaders. Those who don’t invest in strategy are undermining their own organizations. And if your competitors consistently outperform you, they’re almost certainly making better strategic decisions.

So, have we witnessed the death of strategy? Of course not. Bad strategy is dead, but it was never alive. Smart strategy, though, is the difference between leading and following, between setting the pace and falling behind, between winning and losing.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2015 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.