value insights

The Limits of Strategy- Valutrics

Strategies were neither designed nor implemented in controlled environments.
The longer the sequence of planned moves, the greater the number
of human agents who must act in particular ways, the more extensive the
ambition of the project, the more likely that something would go wrong.
Should the first moves in the planned sequence of events fail to produce the
intended effects matters could soon go awry. Situations would become more
complex and the actors more numerous and contrary. The chains of causa-
tion would become attenuated and then broken altogether. Without going
as far as Tolstoy, who dismissed the idea of strategy as presumptuous and
naïve, it was evident that successful outcomes would depend on trying to
affect a range of institutions, processes, personalities, and perceptions that
would often be quite impervious to influence.

A strategy without some prior deliberation might be hard
to cope with the unexpected, pick up the cues of a changing
situation, challenge set assumptions, or consider the
implications of uncharacteristic behavior. If strategy is a fixed plan that set
out a reliable path to an eventual goal, then it is likely to be not only dis-
appointing but also counterproductive, conceding the advantage to others
with greater flexibility and imagination. Adding flexibility and imagination,
however, offers a better chance of keeping pace with a developing situation,
regularly re-evaluating risks and opportunities.
A productive approach to strategy requires recognizing its limits. This
applies not only to the benefits of strategy but also to its domain. Boundaries
are required. As strategy has become so ubiquitous, so that every forward-
looking decision might be worthy of the term, it now risks meaninglessness,
lacking any truly distinguishing feature. One obvious boundary is to insist
on its irrelevance in situations involving inanimate objects or simple tasks. It
only really comes into play when elements of conflict are present. Situations
in which this conflict is only latent are rarely approached in a truly strategic
frame of mind. Rather than assume trouble people prefer instead to trust
others with the expectation of being trusted in turn. Within a familiar –
environment, working with an “in-group,” overtly strategic behavior can lead to
resentment and resistance without commensurate gain. People can be at the
wrong end of power relationships without either realizing or caring, because
of the way they have been encouraged to think about their life circumstances
or because of their habitual reluctance to challenge established hierarchies
and conventions. What makes the difference, so that strategy comes to the
fore, is the recognition of conflict. Some event, or shift in social attitudes
or patterns of behavior, can challenge what had previously been taken for
granted. Familiar situations may be seen with fresh eyes and those previously
part of the “in-group” come to be viewed with suspicion as defectors to the
If emerging situations of conflict bring strategy into the picture, a desire
to play down conflict can take it out. This can even be the case with official
documents with strategy in the title which are largely designed to
demonstrate a capacity for long-term thought. In these documents strategy is
packaged as an authoritative forward look, reflecting the approved views of
a government or company. Hew Strachan has complained of how strategy
has come to be abused in this way, at the expense of its original role as a
link between ends and means. By extending strategy into all governmental
endeavors the word is “robbed” of its meaning leaving only “banalities”
behind. Certainly many “strategy” documents deliberately avoid the topic, lack focus, cover too many dissimilar or only loosely connected issues and
themes, address multiple audiences to the satisfaction of none, and reflect
nuanced bureaucratic compromises. They are often about issues that might
have to be addressed rather than ways of dealing with specific problems.
Consequently, their half-lives are often short. To the extent that such docu-
ments have any strategic content they are about a broad orientation to the
environment, what became known in business strategy as “positioning.” It
may well be that in a broadly stable and satisfactory environment, in which
goals are being realized with relative ease, there may be little need for any-
thing sharper and bolder. Only at moments of environmental instability, as
latent conflict becomes actual, when real choices have to be made does some-
thing resembling a true strategy become necessary.
So what turns something that is not quite strategy into strategy is a sense
of actual or imminent instability, a changing context that induces a sense
of conflict. Strategy therefore starts with an existing state of affairs and only
gains meaning by an awareness of how, for better or worse, it could be
different. This view is quite different from those that assume strategy must
be about reaching some prior objective. It may well be more concerned
with coping with some dire crisis or preventing further deterioration in an
already stressful situation. So the first requirement might be one of survival.
This is why as a practical matter strategy is best understood modestly, as
moving to the “next stage” rather than to a definitive and permanent
conclusion. The next stage is a place that can be realistically reached from the
current stage. That place may not necessarily be better, but it will still be
an improvement upon what could have been achieved with a lesser strategy
or no strategy at all. It will also be sufficiently stable to be a base from
which to prepare to move to the stage after that.

The ability to think ahead is therefore a valuable attribute
in a strategist, but the starting point will still be the challenges
of the present rather than the promise of the future. With each move from
one state of affairs to another, the combination of ends and means will be
reappraised. Some means will be discarded and new ones found, while some
ends will turn out to be beyond reach even as unexpected opportunities
come into view. Even when what had been assumed to be the ultimate goal
is reached, strategy will not stop.