strat·e·gy / ‘stratəjē
n. an adaptation or complex of adaptations (as of behavior, metabolism, or structure) that serves or appears to serve an important function in achieving evolutionary success
How are your strategic initiatives going? If you’re like most managers I spoke to for this month’s Ax, there’s more than a hole or two to fill.
On January 25, I was invited to speak to the International Academy of Strategic Management (IASM) on the topic “Developing Global Leaders in Japan”. The IASM was established six years ago, and on this winter evening, 50 academics and practitioners gathered for their first-ever all-English session. To begin this year, the IASM leadership decided to live up to their name by holding their meetings in English.
Dr. Rémy Mangnier-Watanabe from Tsukuba University emceed the event, and Dr. Tadahiko Kawai, professor from the Chuo University School of Strategic Management, focused everyone on the task at hand. Among other goals, they shared the purpose of the Academy and of the evening – to raise the level of strategic thinking in Japan.
After a brief self-introduction, responding to Dr. Nori Furuya’s kind introduction, I said that the reason Japan lacks strategic leaders is that, when it comes to strategy here: Most leaders in Japan don’t CARE.
I thought this would generate howls of protest, forgetting for a moment that even at the IASM, audiences in Japan don’t howl. But what I saw was more worrisome: nods of agreement … and that was before sharing what I really meant by “CARE” – that in Japan, and elsewhere, there’s a lack of:
- A Common understanding of strategy
Going through the four “lacking” elements, and sharing examples of each, again receiving for the most part general agreement from an up-to-this-point passive audience. Even after sharing a tale regarding Japanese lack of assertiveness I first noticed while teaching business courses in San Diego, this audience too remained (politely for them, passive for me) silent.
In order to increase the energy level, and likelihood of discussion, we did an exercise. I asked each person to write down the first five words that come to mind when seeing the word strategy. Now, most of the people in the room had taken courses in strategy, and many had taught courses in strategy. I then asked the audience to form groups of four or five and share their answers – just the five words.
Given the audience, I wasn’t surprised by what happened next. All the groups engaged in animated discussions, far beyond just sharing the five words. Ask people to write and then discuss something they’re passionate about and you can expect lively discussions, especially in small groups.
Then came the first of many “aha” moments. I asked the audience, “In how many groups did everyone write down the same five words?” As you might guess, no hands were raised. I mean, it would be unlikely to get agreement on 20 out of 20 or 25 out of 25 words. “OK, how about four of the same words?” No hands.
“Three?” “Two?” “OK, how about one? In how many groups did you all share at least one common word that came to mind when you thought of strategy?” Answer? Zero. One or two groups said that two of their four or five members had shared the same word and one group had three members who shared a common word.
Common understandings are not so common
Now we all could see, clearly, that there is no “Common Understanding of Strategy”. Why? Part of the problem stems from an answer that one participant, Professor Philippe Orsini, had written when he first saw the word strategy: “Abstract.” Strategy is an abstract noun. The only way we can possibly understand what strategy means is by connecting the word to something else we already know. And those connections depend on our unique personal histories. The mystery, then, isn’t “Why is there a lack of common understanding of strategy?” Rather, it’s “How do we have anything even resembling good communication about such an abstract concept?”
For in that room of 50 academics and practitioners, all of whom were very familiar with the word strategy, there were more than 200 different words conjured up – and many of them contradictory (for example, one person wrote “happy” and another “struggle”). For some, the word is positive; for others negative; and still others it’s neutral. Some had a mixture of both positive and negative feelings associated with strategy. And as with any other topic, the more experts you get in a room, the more disagreement you may find as they wordsmith their way through conscious and unconscious attempts to influence others.
Why start with a word?
That’s not to say we should avoid the discussion. Quite the opposite. But you can only begin to create a strategy for developing global leaders after you share a common definition of all the terms in that sentence. And good ol’ Noah Webster, while a very smart man, won’t give you the answer. Everyone needs to know what is meant in your organization by “strategy”. And then what’s meant by “developing”, “global”, and “leaders”. Some will respond, “But we all know what these words mean.” My experience and the exercise both show that while most of us know what we mean with the words we use, we’re sadly mistaken if we think others are receiving the same message we think we’re sending.
Prior to strategy, purpose
The next two questions produced more “ahas”. “Write down the mission, or purpose of your organization.” Only about 1/4 of the audience could do this quickly, and over half of that 25 percent wrote something like “satisfy customers” or “make a profit”, both of which are results of successfully executing a strategy in support of a mission, not the mission itself. If that wasn’t bad enough, then came this: “What percentage of the people in your organization would write the mission or purpose using the same words you did above?” Knowing smiles and some laughter. Very few had written even double-digits. Conclusion? We weren’t yet ready to talk about strategy.
For there’s no real point in talking about a strategy for developing global leaders, or for increasing women in leadership or indeed for anything else until your people share a clear understanding of your organization’s purpose – at the highest level and then down to whatever team you happen to be working with.
Now before you think these answers reflect poorly on the audience (“Judge not lest ye be judged.”), I’ve seen similar responses with just about every client I’ve worked with. You might want to check out how your own team would do with these simple yet provocative exercises. Do you all share a common understanding of your mission? Does everyone share a common definition of the abstract concept (be it strategy, development, growth or whatever) that you’re working on? Are you sure?
Three components of a successful strategy
Toward the end of my IASM appearance, I was asked about my favorite elements of a successful strategy. I shared three.
First, know what you want.
Yes, this is obvious, but so many companies or divisions or departments here in Japan have not defined what they want to create. And remember, as Dave Logan and John King, authors of Tribal Leadership, say, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” So if you have not recently answered the questions: “What kind of culture are we creating?”; “What’s important to us?”; and “What will define our success?”; you might want to prioritize that discussion above any discussion of strategy.
Second, ask better questions. One client shared that his former country manager’s goal was to create a “strategy to promote more women to senior positions”. My client, a strategic-thinking HR executive, asked: what if rather than—or in addition to—programs designed for women, the organization were to focus on educating the men who held the leadership positions? What if the organization designed programs to raise the men’s awareness of potential biases as well as changes they could make that would open themselves to promoting more women?
Third, strategy, if it is to be embraced and executed faithfully, needs to be self-defined. Too many firms rely on outsiders to create, rather than to facilitate internal strategic discussions. Can “experts at strategy” really help you with your strategy? Perhaps. But how often have you been left with an expensive desk plan and more confusion than execution?
So when the emcee asked: “If you could boil down the strategy of developing global leaders to one element, what would it be?” That one element is … that there is no one element. Just as the purpose of an organization needs to be self-defined, so does your strategy.
Part of the reason I’m so excited to be involved in the ACCJ this year is that we have a clear purpose: “共就成長 | Achieving Growth Together”. By printing this credo on business cards, and sharing it at leadership and committee meetings, everyone knows the strategic direction for the Chamber this year. All our strategic initiatives will flow from a shared commitment to “achieving growth together”. And we at the ACCJ do CARE!