Strategy is not a plan, it’s a system

Strategy is all about who you talk to.

Strategy is all about who you talk to.

Listening to our speakers in Strategic Management class on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think (as I generally do) about the role of community structure in strategic decisionmaking. The speakers all positioned strategy as a dialogue between concepts- from organizational vision to scenario planning to game metaphors. Strategy is a process of navigating and integrating these concepts to lay out a strategic plan which can then be communicated out to a broader organization.

It is a useful framework for making strategic decisions, one that assumes that there are a predetermined set of people in a room with a predetermined set of information hashing out the best plan that they can. To me it seems like there is another equally relevant component of strategic decisionmaking: WHO makes the decisions. Strategic decisions aren’t just about integrating concepts, they’re about integrating people. Different relationships from across and outside of an organization have to intercept, share information, and reach an agreement before any strategic plan can be meaningfully implemented. I’m curious whether it’s possible to view strategy from this lens- what principles can one apply when building the network of relationships that inform, formulate, and disseminate strategy?

There are hints of these principles in some of our learning at Presidio. Boardroom-out decisionmaking is rarely beneficial, often leading to narrow-minded and ill-informed decisions (Sarah Palin’s vice presidential slot seems like a shining example.) Effective eco-efficiency strategies tend to solicit input from the rank and file of an organization, and tend to efficiently confer authority on that rank and file. So do effective customer service strategies and Toyota’s strategies for operational efficiencies. Effective risk mitigation and supply chain management strategies seem to come from close engagement with external stakeholders (suppliers and risk-knowledgeable gov’t orgs and NGOs, respectively). Much of what I have learned at Presidio about sustainable business leads me to believe that sustainable businesses move many strategic decisions out of the boardroom and into shared dialogues with key stakeholders.

If effective strategic decisions are often made in dialogue with stakeholders, then the important question isn’t how to make a strategic plan, it’s how to craft a dialogue that makes a strategic plan. Strategy is about building the relationships and decisionmaking systems that can inform and evolve an organization’s strategy on an ongoing basis. Strategy is not a plan, it’s a system for making plans.

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