Part 1: Setting the Stage
Companies are fascinating things. At first glance, it seems they are just groups of strangers, stuffed together and paid to do things that make money. Ah, but if it were only that simple. In reality, companies are dynamic organisms, replete not just with intelligent, self-organizing human beings that change and grow individually, but evolve and transform collectively. Over time, companies hone and improve their capabilities with things like processes, procedures, and standards—the basic mechanics of doing business. With more time, intangibles emerge, like values, culture, and a particularly shifty phantom called status quo. These latter bits are far less mechanical, and far more difficult to manage. Before you know it, things are quite complicated and steering the ship takes more than just a helmsman: it requires the tightly coordinated efforts of its entire crew. This complex coordination, in a general sense, is just a simpler way of denoting the concept of strategic management.
Strategic management, as a practice, is nothing new. While some of the terminology we use today may have been coined as far back as the 50s and 60s, the acts of long-range thinking, long-term planning, and group cooperation have existed arguably since the dawn of humankind—perhaps even before. A recent wrinkle, however, is that there seems to be an assumption, a bias even, that large-scale strategic activity is only the business of big businesses. In my experience, the conventional wisdom is that smaller companies lack the time, resources, or even sophistication to engage in such a thing. But nothing could be further from the truth. Long-term strategic planning and management may be just as important and useful for small, agile businesses as it is for large, multinational organizations. I’ve seen firsthand the way it can galvanize and unite teams behind a common cause. Strategic management works.
What is strategic management?
First, let’s take a look at the orchestra. If you’ve ever been to the symphony, you’ll likely agree it’s quite a magical experience to see classical music performed live. There are so many instruments, so many individual performers all flowing in and out of one another’s movements in real time that it’s hard to know where to focus your attention. Naturally, your eyes settle on one of the more animated focal points, the conductor, and you may be tempted to think she/he is single-handedly holding everything together. But what is not always immediately apparent is the passion and the meticulous arrangement of the details by the composer, from that first moment when inspiration was wrought into musical notation. Also unseen are the endless iterations on the instruments, trying to find just the right chord progression, counterpoint, or resolution. The hundreds of hours spent practicing and tweaking details both by the musicians and the conductor lead up to that seemingly flawless presentation.
I can think of no better analogy for strategic planning and management, as it’s an initiative that has its own brand of composers, conductors, and performers. Like an orchestra, timing and coordination of strategic activities are imperative to creating a sense of rhythm and harmony. If one musician starts from the beginning of the piece, and another starts from the middle, a disjointed cacophony results. If the conductor leaves the stage one-third of the way into the symphony, you can expect the outcome will not be optimal. Likewise, if the moving parts within a company’s strategic initiative become disjointed or if the leadership becomes too distant, you can expect the framework to crumble beneath the weight of its scope.
Strategic management, in its most basic sense, is the act of the entire organization participating in:
- Thinking about and documenting collective long-term goals and objectives
- Devising plans to reach those goals—a roadmap between the present and the future
- Activating the necessary resources to initiate and execute the plan
- Putting mechanisms in place to observe and manage measurable progress
For me, that’s it. Some folks would argue for much more rigid or involved systems, but the more we encumber the definition, the more we run the risk of making it more challenging to execute. Any company can (and should) address the four cardinal points above, regardless of practice, industry, or size.
Why Does Strategic Management Work?
First and foremost, it satisfies the stated objectives of the organization. “I want to accomplish this, and this is how I will do that, and this is the progress I’ve made.” It’s a recipe that simply seeks to clarify and make explicit larger company goals, in turn making them vastly more achievable.
In addition, expect the following ancillary benefits from devising and executing strategic plans. They:
- Connect people (sometimes disparate, disconnected, or otherwise uncomfortable)
- Lead to spontaneous discovery: new perspectives, new insights, unanticipated topics, learning
- Zoom out of the daily grind and emphasize a “bigger picture” mentality
- Encourage critical and abstract thinking
- Promote a visceral sense of group cohesion by orchestrating activities between departments
- Provide a meaningful frame of reference for less sexy (i.e., more mundane) tasks
- Empower and excite individuals to get involved in something bigger than themselves
Anyone can cover the basics in any way they see fit for their organization, but only to the extent that they are ready to participate in the process. It’s the participating in the process that, itself, can yield unexpected benefits and spark curiosity, experimentation, and learning. In The Organizational Orchestra, Part 2 · Conducting Business, we’ll take a more detailed look at the components that comprise strategic plans and a series of tips for small businesses to execute them effectively.