Is All Strategy Grand?

Jay Frischkorn

Monday, April 10, 2017

Business leaders tell us that they want their people to be more strategic – to have a more general management perspective. But what does that mean? How do you take the general management, leadership and strategic skills you experience in the classroom and apply them to your “day job”, which after all, is usually focused on execution?

Before answering that question, we’ll need to tackle this one – Is all strategy “grand”?

To my mind, a Grand Strategy addresses the organization at its highest levels – financial, political, competitive, etc.

The case studies we use in class take on this character: “Should company A change its operating model and culture to expand geographically?” or “Should company B restructure R&D spending to enhance innovation?” or “What is the best capital structure to support company C’s global expansion?”

This is strategic thinking writ large. These are decisions that have long-term, companywide consequences. This is what the “C-Suite” does. Do you have to live with the consequences? Definitely.  Adapt to them successfully? Hopefully. Contribute to the decision itself? Unlikely – at least at this stage of your career.

And if strategic thinking were just limited to the Grand scale, that would pretty much be the end of the conversation. But I don’t think that is what leaders mean when they say “more strategic”.

A strategic perspective cannot be limited to only planning at the highest levels or to addressing existential decisions. The short answer to the question: “Is all strategy Grand?” is No.

But what does being more strategic mean, then? What strategic decisions can I make inside my own area of responsibility?

In my consulting practice, I work with many leaders who are responsible for functional departments. Recently I worked with the director of a learning organization (LO) on what she could do to improve their results.

Initially, as you would expect, the focus was on execution; how to do what they do better. “Better” was a little fuzzy – encompassing budget, demand for training programs and learning impact. As things evolved, this became a two-part conversation. First, how do I meet my current objectives? Second, what do I need to be doing in the future? The second question drives “strategic thinking”.

In the interest of space, I’ll summarize how strategic thinking entered into the conversation:

  1. Future Focus: Looking at where the business was moving – services, products, etc. – and how well her current organization would be able to execute and meet the needs of these constituencies. Insights came from annual reports and probing internally – she exhibited the essential leadership quality of “curiosity”. This helped fuel a SWOT like analysis and back of the envelope scenario planning exercise.
  2. Technology: We looked at different learning and communications technologies available and how well they fit with different business scenarios and audiences. Did she need to introduce new technology? Did they need to try new delivery techniques that would be more effective than the tools they were currently using?
  3. People: How well did her staff’s skills align with the needs two years out? Were there knowledge gaps? Were there deeper skills and cultural gaps? Was she recruiting the talent she needed two years out or just filling immediate needs? Would she need to change her recruiting requirements going forward?
  4. Structure: Was the current structure of the organization right? Would the future require more flexibility – and how would trends in the learning space towards more contractors affect her underlying “business model”. Was there a right balance between full and part time? Were people in the right offices/locations?

As you can see, taking a future focus and looking the implications for talent, structure, technology audience/customer needs and product design drove the discussion from how to do it better short term to how to position the department and its resources to successfully meet future business needs.

Positioning resources and understanding the terrain is the essence of “strategy” even when the territory is small.

Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (LFGSM) Business Leader Faculty® bring their real-world knowledge and experience to the classroom and beyond. Through graduate business degree programs – including the MBA and Master of Science in Management – and Corporate Learning Solutions (CLS), the LFGSM faculty develop talent and prepare businesses for what’s next. Learn more about Jay Frischkorn and our Business Leader Faculty® today.

jayfrischkornJay Frischkorn is the President/Principal of Strategic Profitability Consultants, Inc.  He specializes in process improvement, strategic planning, organizational design, financial training, project management and data mining.  He has also held managerial positions at Premier Assistive Technology, Inc., Rylander Direct Marketing, Inc., Caremark, American Air/Sky, and Procter and Gamble.


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