Most companies are lousy at delivering on meaningful strategic change. Read this important book before you repeat the failure, writes Ben Walker
There’s a great passage early in Solving the Strategy Delusion where a monkey becomes the master of his own downfall. A YouTube video shows an African tribesman setting a trap. The tribesman places a nut inside a tiny hole, and hides in the bush. The monkey grabs the nut but, in making a fist, he can’t extract his paw, or the nut, from the hole. Were he to let go of the nut, he’d be free to go about his business, and probably find an alternative lunch. But he won’t, so he sits there, a sitting duck (or sitting monkey), and the tribesman ambles over and captures him.
The authors Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper propose that this wonderful video serves as a warning to business. Companies so fixated with what they perceive to have gained, what they have built, that they are unable to let go. This renders them incapable of moving on, unable to change, and unwilling to venture into more gainful territories.
There is a lot of it about. Seventy to 90% of strategic change initiatives fail. There is much talking, too little delivery. Strategy has become a vague ambition superseded at every turn by tactics and short-termism.
Cost-cutting strategies are an example of the malaise. Stigter and Cooper quote the late Steve Jobs as a man who was willing to pursue bullish strategy of expansion in a recessionary market. “A lot of companies have chosen to downsize,” Jobs is quoted as saying. “We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.” Jobs’ successful strategy is given by the authors as an example of ‘D-optioning’ – selecting an unobvious, winning approach to a classic dilemma.
Perhaps the greatest thing about this book is it’s mental interactivity. Cooper is probably the finest organizational psychologist of our age, and it shows.
Consider his test. Imagine you are driving alone in a two-seater sports car through London on an unpleasant winter’s day. At a uncovered bus stop, exposed to the grey urban sleet, you see a) an old lady who looks like she is going to die from cold, b) your best friend, who once saved your life, and c) someone who seems to be the partner of your dreams. When Cooper’s audiences are asked what they would do, their answers tend to split equally three ways. An altruistic third rush the old lady to hospital. A dutiful group give their former saviour a ride through the sleet. A lusty 33% try their luck with the heart-throb.
The best answer is none of these: it’s the D-option. You hand your keys to your friend and have her drive the old lady to the hospital. That way you get to catch the bus with your romantic target, who has just seen you magnanimously handover your car to help an elderly citizen. Read the book: you might find you think of D-options more readily once you do.
Solving the Strategy Delusion
Palgrave Macmillan £29.99