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Writer Henry Mintzberg, author of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and other business books, once told of coming across a newspaper story about two young Inuit hunters who became lost on their snowmobile and perished in a blizard. When the storm cleared, their bodies were found just a few hundred yards from their village.
For anyone who knows anything about Inuit culture and history, it's a remarkable story. Inuits have safely traveled the arctic region for centuries -- in all kinds of weather -- without the benefit of mechanized transportation, modern clothing materials, or navigational technology. It seems unthinkable, then, that these hunters, with the added advantages of today's technology, would lose their way and their lives when they were so close to the safety of their homes.
Mintzberg contends the hunters may have died because of the introduction of modern technology, such as snowmobiles and Gore-Tex parkas, which caused them to lose touch with the traditional wisdom of their culture. And he thinks the story is an important cautionary tale to organizations as they pursue increasingly "advanced" methods of management.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE. In business, one "technology" that can have unintended negative consequences is formal strategic planning. If we aren't careful, increasing our dependence on the mostly analytical methods of strategic analysis can cause us to lose our "gut feel" for the business -- and we may find ourselves sitting atop our idling strategic planning machines in the midst of a blinding competitive snowstorm.
In the early stages of a company's growth, strategic planning is done in a primitive and intuitive way. Members of the company "village" are in constant contact with each other and with customers -- meaning that adaptation occurs so naturally that it's difficult to tell where planning ends and doing begins.
But when a company grows beyond a certain point, these informal and ad-hoc processes begin to break down. To handle increased complexity, companies introduce systems, processes, and procedures to help it manage itself. Eventually, the company has to make hard strategic choices about where it will invest significant resources -- in effect, placing big bets on which path or paths will most likely lead to safety and success for its people.
FAILING FORMULA. So when a company reaches a certain size, strategic planning is not only good, it's vital to continued growth. Often, the problem isn't the introduction of strategic planning per se, rather it's the way those plans are implemented. That's because most people misunderstand the purpose of strategy: They think you strategize in order to determine the direction of the company. Really, that's the easy part. The real purpose of strategizing is to teach people in the company how to think and act strategically.
Far too many companies still envision strategic planning as a primarily cerebral and analytical process. So most strategic-planning processes consist of months of analysis of markets, competitors, and environmental factors -- designed so that we can arm the top 5 to 10 people in the organization with the information they need to decide the future direction of the company. And perhaps in the 1960s, when change happened more slowly, that may have been possible. Today, it's a recipe for failure.
I'm not saying that companies should avoid strategic analysis, any more than I would suggest that the Inuit should throw out their snowmobiles and GPS systems. What I am saying is that if we aren't careful, we can become too dependent upon information that's run through multiple analytical filters -- to the point where we miss some quick turn in a marketplace, some emerging customer need, or an important opportunity to think outside the box.
MENTAL FOCUS. The ideal Inuit hunter is one armed with both the advantages of modern technology and the instincts and deep knowledge given to him by his native culture. The two capabilities need to be woven together.
The same is true with strategy. While improving their strategic analysis capabilities, companies need to hold onto the "village" approach to decisionmaking -- where close contact and frequent contact between team members and with customers guides and informs strategic direction (see BW Online, 1/19/05, "A Better Scheme for Strategic Planning".
Strategy-making processes should be evaluated first in terms of the degree to which they improve the entire company's ability to think and act strategically. With the speedy pace of change today, totally new strategic decisions are always waiting just around the corner.
UNLOCKING SECRETS. My family and I traveled this summer to Canada and Alaska, the land of the Inuit, and we were taken by the beautiful sculptures tribal artisans carve out of rock, wood, and bone. We learned that young artists are told to roll the object around in the hands while chanting "Who is in there?" and not to start carving until the shape hidden in the object is revealed -- whether it be a polar bear, seal, or eagle.
Great strategy-making isn't much different. To build strategy is to hold an organization in your mind and "roll it around" in an attempt to discover and realize its hidden potential.