Calling it ‘strategic’ does not make it important

What's the strategy?

On the 100th anniversary of the Perth-based conglomerate Wesfarmers last year, Chairman and former MD Michael Chaney was asked what measures he used to decide on acquiring another company.

“I use the Three S’s as a guide,” said Mr Chaney,”and they are: Synergy, Strategic and Someone else will do it. If anyone uses these words, then I am not buying!”

Management speak can make people lazy.

You know the sort. They sound and look good, but scratch away at the surface, and there’s no substance to the argument. It’s similar to the Emperor’s New Clothes parable – no one wants to be the first to call someone out on it, lest you look foolish. But call them out you must.

“Oh this is a terrific merger, the synergies are remarkable,” says someone postulating for the acquisition. Really? I rarely see ‘synergies’ play out in real life, with the larger issue of culture clash often ruining the potential benefits as the two organisations fail to play nicely together.

And as for ‘strategic’, I usually run for the hills if anyone plops ‘strategic’ in front of something. Strategic marketing, strategic HRM, a strategic decision, a strategic purchase, strategic management consultant …

Calling everything ‘strategic’ is the last bastion of those who will not actually do the work (the 3rd S above).

It all sounds so grandiose, but it’s usually just an excuse to not get something done in the immediate term (“we have to discuss our strategic plan!”), or is used to paper over the cracks of bad performance (“we’re not worrying about short term results, as we have to let the agreed strategy pan out!”).

If is often argued that the highest levels in business (the board level) is all about strategy, plotting the long term, charting the course. True enough, this is the job of the Board. They should be listening, watching and analysing the here and now, checking on the performance of the company while ensuring the current trajectory is the best. But with (often conflicting) information flying in from all angles and marketplaces, with rivals and technological change gathering pace, an organisation these days needs to be nimble, organic and fluid. True, they cannot lurch from side to side, but they can’t be stuck in their ways either.

‘Having a strategy’ is all good and fine, but the successful organisations of the future will be the ones that can adapt, stay close to the shifting needs of the consumer, and get ahead of the curve. An adaptive strategy, if you like.

Michael Chaney is speaking at a ‘Success & Leadership’ breakfast in Perth on 25th November.

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