In Institutional Intelligence I use the image of the “middle game” in chess to raise the question of whether or not the rather standard practice of “five year strategic planning” is really worth the time and effort. And that instead the genius of great institutions is, of course, that they act and respond strategically, but that they are marked by a nimbleness or responsiveness that means that can be “on it” when something emerges – an opportunity or a crisis – that could not have been foreseen.
Leo Tolstoy’s magisterial War and Peace has what would seem to be 1001 nuggets or streams of wisdom. And one of these that caught my attention is when, through the words of the character Prince Andrei, Tolstoy writes:
“ . . . in military matters, the most profoundly devised plans meant nothing . . . everything depends on how one responded to the unexpected and the unpredictable. . . “ (p. 632 in my edition of WandP)
Again, to emphasize: everything depends on how one responds to the unexpected and the unpredictable.
In response, I suggest that strategic response and action requires the following capacities:
First, the ability to read the situation – to get the lay of the land and see what has transpired and interpret it, that is, to know what the circumstances mean or do not mean. To read the circumstances without blame or making a judgement about someone’s failure. It is merely an act of naming reality.
Second, acting strategically means recognizing the appropriate response – we do not over-react, but we do determine what is appropriate, meaning what is timely and effective. We recognize what it is that needs to be done.
Third, decisiveness: to just do what needs to be done. We get the lay of the land and determine what needs to be done and then we act or choose or implement.
All of this, though, requires two things without which none of these three make any sense. First, you have to have missional clarity: if you do not know your industry and what it is that is core to your institutional purpose, then any decisive action borders on meaninglessness or it is merely a survival mechanism. The guiding light in all strategic moves has to be clarity of mission – knowing your institutional purpose. It is the compass that guides you through the shoals.
And second, you have to have an administrative structure that makes it possible to be responsive. Some organizations have so many levels of approval or so many points at which a cautious minority can in effect either bully or plead or derail a creative and essential action such that, quite simply, strategic thinking and acting is not possible.
Thus the bottom line: great and effective organizations respond strategically to their circumstances.