Setting the right strategy is arguably the most critical managerial challenge facing any organisation. Yet many business leaders lose sight of the wood for the trees when it comes to strategy. Why is this so, given the increased focus on strategy in organisations and the number of best-selling business books and sold-out seminars and workshops on strategy around the globe? The fundamental challenge is related to putting this learning to work in practice. How to teach strategy effectively is still a source of contention in most business schools.What is meant by an intelligent approach to teaching strategy?
Given its strong military history, strategy is often taught in a mechanistic, linear way where the learning interactions are driven via the presentation and application of analytical frameworks. Although these frameworks assist participants to structure their thinking, the challenge is in the quality of the application of the learning. How many strategy sessions have we participated in and how many strategy assignments have we marked where analytical frameworks are positioned in isolation, theoretically and/or are populated with highly dubious data with little to no insight?
An intelligent approach to teaching strategy is insight-driven where more focus is placed on enabling people to reflect on and develop the process and quality of their thinking with a view to improving their strategic thinking capability to deliver a superior value offering to their stakeholders. Good strategy is about clarity of thinking; balancing insight with rational analysis, particularly in the context of incomplete information and complex, ambiguous circumstances. Why is an intelligent approach to teaching strategy important?
Competitive environments change very rapidly and managers are pressurised to understand the big picture, to demystify complexity and ambiguity and to unpack dilemmas in their quest for value-enhancing decisions. This sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. If managers are not in the habit of thinking about and reflecting on their thinking and learning owing to time constraints and the sheer volume of information at their disposal, nothing much will change back in the workplace. Analysis is only one of several inputs to an intelligent approach to teaching strategy. Reflection, insight, intuition and above all a predisposition for experimentation and learning are its other important constituents.
Arguably, strategic thinking developed via an insight-driven approach is an increasingly critical strategic capability enabling those organisations that have acquired skill and acumen in its application to recognise and act on opportunities faster than their competitors. Insight can also help an organisation to avert situations that might be detrimental to the organisation’s competitive position.How would an intelligent approach to teaching Strategy work in practice?
- What is the impact on our teaching methodologies?
Storytelling, simulations, unpacking the strategic thinking process in a movie clip or play, panel conversations and debates, using music and dance, to name but a few, would be examples of methodologies that would enable a more insight-driven approach to teaching strategy. These methodologies are consistent with a strategy as process perspective as they can be used to mirror and introduce strategy as a process from inception through to execution. Taking participants out of their comfort zones is important in an insight-driven approach to strategy as this ‘positive disequilibrium’ creates the opportunity for reflection and learning, and models the turbulence of the real world where high quality decisions need to be made quickly, particularly where critical information is incomplete and ambiguous.
- What is the impact on our learning outcomes and content?
The fundamental impact of an intelligent approach to teaching strategy would be more focus on assisting participants to develop a strategic thinking process and the relevant thinking competencies – more focus on asking questions that raise quality information used to populate the analytical frameworks and more focus on developing insight as to why the content is important, how it converges to inform decision making and how it should be applied. Reflective questions that enable insights as to how the thinking process and competencies should be applied in participants’ work environments and spheres of influence become a critical component of the learning conversation.
An example of a reflective question that could be posed to participants is:
When gathering information as a team to understand the context for our organisation’s strategy do I:
- build the competence in my team for gathering and sharing more abstract information about how the future, changing external environment may impact the team’s performance?
- explore the impacts of future economic, political and social changes, changes in science, technology, customer demand and industry dynamics?
The reflection and learning conversation that follows enables participants to share insights as to why these questions are significant, what analytical frameworks converge to support and validate these insights, why they converge, how they converge and how the insights shared inform required behaviour change in the participant.
- What is the impact of the way in which we design and assess a strategy assignment?
The weighting of the mark allocation would favour the sharing of insights gained through the learning and assignment experience and the measurable behaviour change in the participant. Involving the participant’s stakeholders in the assignment process would be important to provide both input into and feedback on the participant’s behaviour change as well as the tangible and intangible value that behaviour change generated in its execution. The challenge is to move beyond purely paper-based strategy assignments and yet not lose the rigorous strategic thinking process and multiple feedback loops required to enable insights about strategy and its implementation.
- Is this intelligent approach relevant to teaching strategy at all levels of the organisation?
Nancy Klein (1999) shares the most basic truth that resulted from her research in her book Time to Think. She acknowledges the realisation that everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first. It is argued that the intelligent approach to teaching strategy should be applied at all levels of the organisation and we need consciously to bring the thinking and reflection elements back into strategy. The quest is for intelligent content and methodologies that would inform our teaching practice.
Lesley Boddington is a Faculty member at USB-ED. Her areas of specialisation are Developing and Leading High Performance Teams, Performance-driven Leadership, Enhancing Strategic Thinking via Performance-driven Thinking, and Strategy Formulation and Implementation.