The art of strategy
Former senior army officer Craig Lawrence explains how to make your approach to strategy more effective
“An organisation without a strategy is like a ship without map or compass” – Andy Start, chief executive of Defence Equipment and Support, part of the Ministry of Defence.
When I was doing the research for my book The Quick Guide to Effective Strategy (see review on p44-45), I interviewed a chief executive whose speciality is turning around failing organisations. There were, he suggested, two closely related reasons why most organisations fail: the first is poor leadership and the second is the absence of an effective strategy. His comments were not revolutionary – many other interviewees had made similar points – but the stark clarity of his views made me reflect on the nature of the book I was writing.
My original intention had been to focus the book on describing an accessible and proven methodology that organisations could apply to help them develop an effective strategy. But after my discussion with the chief executive, I realised that unless I also touched on leadership and, specifically, whose job it is to lead the development of an organisation’s strategy, I would be doing readers a disservice. So that’s what I did and this short article draws on the expanded content of the book to offer some observations that might help governors of independent schools reflect on their own approach to strategy, both in terms of its development and its leadership.
IN THE BEGINNING
Let’s start with what strategy is. In academic circles it’s known as a contested concept because there are so many different views – indeed, if you Google ‘what is strategy?’ you will get more than four billion answers, many of which would seem sensible. One of the most widely quoted contemporary definitions is that: “Strategy = Ends + Ways + Means”. This strategy ‘equation’ was developed by Arthur Lykke in the late 1980s. Lykke, a retired colonel at the US Army War College, believed that the three components of strategy were like the legs of a stool which, if they were not all in balance, would tilt, creating risk. The original illustration published with the article that explained his view is shown in the below diagram.
Although more than 30 years old, Lykke’s definition is still used by many, but the problem is that it implies that if a strategy’s ‘ends’, ‘ways’ and ‘means’ are all in balance, then it will most likely succeed. Unfortunately, life is seldom that straightforward, mainly because the future is highly uncertain and usually has a habit of unfolding in the most unexpected ways. For example, few would have predicted that in 2020 a global pandemic would affect the lives of nearly every person on the planet, or that in February 2021 Vladimir Putin’s tanks would roll across the border into Ukraine in a bid to return the country to Russian rule, bringing incredible hardship to the people of Ukraine but also causing a sudden spike in energy prices that would lead to rampant inflation and soaring interest rates in many other countries, including the UK. For this reason, the definition provided by Harry Yarger, author of the seminal The Little Book on Big Strategy, seems more appropriate: “Strategy provides a coherent blueprint to bridge the gap between the realities of today and a desired future. It is the disciplined calculation of overarching objectives, concepts, and resources within acceptable bounds of risk to create more favourable future outcomes than might otherwise exist if left to chance or the hands of others.”
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD STRATEGY?
This definition gets at the essence of what good strategy is all about. In a school context, it’s about deciding where you want the school to be in, say, three to five years’ time and then identifying how you’re going to get there, exploiting the opportunities and overcoming the obstacles that today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment creates. To be effective, experience suggests that a strategy, including one for a school, should:
• Have clarity of purpose (why a strategy is needed and what its desired end-state is)
• Be designed to operate in a VUCA environment (because the future, which none of us can predict, is likely to be even more turbulent than the present)
• Be set at a high level, determining the school’s direction of travel for the next three to five years
• Be designed to address wicked problems, which are hard to identify and difficult to resolve
• Account for all stakeholders, changing their behaviours to create favourable conditions
• Be highly innovative, with a central ‘big idea’ or ‘guiding policy’ that ‘magnifies’ their effect and enhances their resilience
• Provide a ‘theory of success’ (or ‘theory of victory’) that explains how the desired end-state is to be achieved, rather than just a general approach
• Be highly adaptable (so the strategy can be modified as the situation changes, or when it becomes apparent that assumptions underpinning the
strategy’s development were flawed).
The methodology described in the book, which is based on 14 critical thinking questions dispersed over five thematic stages, can help schools develop strategies that have the above characteristics. And contrary to what many consultants will tell you, the best people to develop its strategy are a school’s own people. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the people who really understand a school are its senior management team and, hopefully, its governors. They are best placed to identify the opportunities that might be exploited, and the obstacles that will need to be overcome, to achieve its ambitious vision for the future. The second reason is that unless the school’s own people support its strategy, it’s highly likely to fail. Dwight D Eisenhower, one of the most famous generals of World War II and later the 34th President of the United States put it neatly: “Whenever men can be persuaded rather than ordered – when they can be made to feel that they have participated in developing the plan – they approach their tasks with understanding and enthusiasm.”
As a final thought on people, it’s worth bearing in mind that if the school is a charity, then the governors and not the senior management team are legally responsible for developing its strategy. Surprising as it might seem, many governors seem unaware of this even though charity law is unequivocal that trustees are responsible for acting in their charity’s best interests and, as part of this, making “balanced and adequately informed decisions, thinking about the long term as well as the short term.”
Hard as it might seem, this means that when a school charity fails because it didn’t have an effective strategy, the governors are both responsible and accountable, not the headteacher and his or her senior management team. This doesn’t mean that every governor needs to be a strategy expert, but it does suggest that governors should know what good strategy ‘looks like’ so they can make informed contributions when the school’s strategy is being developed and offer constructive challenge if/when external consultants are engaged to assist.
Craig Lawrence is the founder and managing director of Craig Lawrence Consulting.