The Strategist's Art

After forty years in the private sector, I can think of few activities upon which more time has been wasted than “mission and vision” projects and offsites.

One problem is vast confusion over the meaning of these two terms: Ask ten people to define them and you’ll probably get ten different answers

A second problem is the insipid results of most organization’s attempts at “missioning and visioning”. Quick: Can you write down your organization’s mission and vision statements? Or can you tell me how they guide you in making the decisions you face every day?

If you couldn’t you’re far from alone. I’ve asked these questions of clients for almost 40 years with the same depressing result. The painful truth is that most mission and vision statements are exercises in organizational vanity that are indistinguishable, generic, and so filled with buzzwords that they are devoid of practical meaning or impact.

Instead of wasting time on “missioning and visioning”, I’ve learned the virtue of focusing instead on purpose and strategy.

Purpose is far easier to discern than most people think. Just ask yourself this question: What would the world lose if your organization ceased to exist tomorrow? Hopefully, the world’s response won’t be “good riddance.”

Strategy is also far less mysterious than it is often made out to be. In essence, it is simply a causal theory of how to achieve an organization’s most important goals with limited resources in the face of uncertainty. Plans implement strategy.

Strategies that are complete and effective begin with an unsparing assessment of how an organization came to its present circumstances, and different ways its environment could evolve in an uncertain future.

Based on this assessment, a strategist must determine the most important and measurable goals that the organization must achieve within a specified timeframe to enable it to survive and thrive in the face of uncertainty.

Setting out ambitious goals and describing how they could be achieved without taking limited resources and uncertainty into account is not strategy, but rather an exercise in wishful thinking that comes with a built in excuse: “It didn’t work because you didn’t give us enough money.”

At its heart, strategy is a creative process that resolves the tension between critical goals and limited resources in an uncertain environment.

That is why strategy – and its counterpart, strategic risk management and governance -- will always be an art.

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