Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Balancing innovative change and ongoing reliable stability and consistency 4: strategic thinking, planning and execution 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on April 6, 2017

This is my fourth installment to a series in which I explore tactical and strategic approaches to business management and leadership, and best practices approaches for coordinately pursuing both as context dictates. See Business Strategy and Operations – 4, postings 655 and loosely following for Parts 1-3.)

I began this series with a briefly and selectively sketched real world example, outlining one side to how a specific high-tech business has recurringly creating disconnect and inefficiency problems for itself, from a lack of effective overall strategic planning at the top, and from a lack of effective connection between its strategic planning and its more tactically managed execution. You can find that case study sketch at Part 1: a basic dilemma and Part 2: tactical thinking, planning and execution 1. And I continued from there to at least briefly sketch out what tactical management is, and how it relates to and at least ideally connects with overall strategy in an organization, in Part 3: tactical thinking, planning and execution 2. And I included strategy per se in that line of discussion as if it were an engineer’s black box construct where you might be able to see and understand the data and findings inputs going into it directly, and the specific strategic decision outputs coming out of it – but where you cannot see what happens in-between as strategic processes and operations are actually carried out within the box.

My goal for this installment is to at least begin to peel back the cover of that black box so we can look inside of it. But before I do so, I want to at least briefly outline why it makes so much sense to at least initially address strategy, and particularly overall high level strategy in black box terms – and particularly for large and widely geographically dispersed businesses and corporations.

• In practice, and as a matter of essentially unavoidable day-to-day reality, hands-on workers, lower and mid-level managers and even more senior managers and lower level executives, rarely if ever find themselves privy to anything like the underlying thought or decision making process that arrived at whatever strategic plan, vision or understanding, they have to find ways to implement, day-to-day and in their immediate task and project-due perspective.
• Overall strategy and how it is arrived at, are usually passed down the table of organization and its line of supervisory and management authority as a black box construct phenomenon, but with one salient exception. The larger and more structurally complex and diversified the organization, and the wider the range of inputs that would actually go into that black box, the smaller the fraction of its actual inputs can be visible to any individual or group not in the C level decision making team too. So unlike the situation found in a true black box construct, you mostly just see the output coming from it – limiting opportunity to even begin to meaningfully surmise what might be going on inside the box itself, and even as just arriving at a possible cartoon simplification of that.
• Strategy in practice, and certainly for large and complex organizations, can arrive at the desks and work benches of those responsible to actually day-to-day implement it as a genuine mystery – unless events and challenges that might be shaping it are so overwhelming present and visible that they would compel some particular strategic path forward and in a manner that cannot be hidden. More routine strategic decisions and decisions that are arrived at through more slow-moving evolutionary processes in thinking, absent any particular business-wide compelling need, are going to in most cases seem at least relatively opaque – except perhaps insofar as they seem to mesh with the more generally stated business mission or plan in place.
• Remember in this context that even a more detailed business plan and one that has been updated for continued and ongoing relevancy, is only going to provide a set of overall operational and strategic goal parameters, even if useful ones for business guidance. Day-to-day planning and execution: tactical management and its carry-through always have to be able to flexibly accommodate the unexpected, at least in detail and even when their goal is to arrive at solutions and resolutions that connect into and support the overall business plan and overall strategy in place, long-term.

I have offered what amounts to a brief laundry list of next-step topics and issues that I will be addressing in this series and for much of the balance of it moving forward. And I will repeat that at the end of this installment as part of my set-up for the next to follow. But one essential detail that I did not explicitly list there, bears mention now as it is in fact key to addressing all of the rest, including the issues that I have already addressed in these first here-four installments: the overriding, need for open and where possible transparent connection between strategy and tactics in a business, and for both normative day-to-day functioning and for defining and carrying out its risk management and course-correction capabilities too. And that is the point where I begin to open up the box itself in the balance of this posting.

I want to begin with the absolute basics here, to set a hopefully consistent basic foundation for what follows. “Strategy” as a word, means different things to different people. Some simply invoke it as a word, and in fact apply it like tape to whatever they decide, or do and then decide about and no matter how ad hoc that was arrived at. They invoke and apply it to in effect hold everything together that is going on anyway. Some, and I add many, see and carry through on strategy as a highly organized and structured, systematic process. That is a hallmark of effective business leadership and it becomes an absolute necessity as a business grows in scale and complexity and as timeframes for necessary decision and action become foreshortened, making established consistent decision making paths essential. Most business leaders follow the later of those two options more than the former but still have their ad hoc moments – and ones that can have unexpectedly long-term consequences, at least occasionally. (Yes, I noted telescoped-in, shorter time frames there, even as strategy per se and certainly as an ongoing process is long-term in its basic nature. Strategy is of necessity always being implemented and reviewed, at least in part for its impact, upon the immediate here-and-now and the short timeframe – and definitely during periods of change or uncertainty. So strategy may be more fundamentally long-term in nature but it has to be measured for its relevancy and effectiveness in shorter-term implementation timescales too.)

• Cutting ahead of myself in my overall to-address list for this series, as noted above and returning from that parenthetical side-note to the narrative at hand here: a source of familiar examples of the first of the “strategy type” possibilities that I just raised – “ad hoc strategy”, I make note of first time entrepreneurs who I have worked with who have set out to develop and build startups, and particularly when they start out on this path with little or no real management experience. Strategic tools and processes can be learned and even without persistent ongoing learning curve pain from finding out what should have been done, only after the fact and then playing catch-up for a next time. More importantly, strategic thinking can be learned and I have worked with people going through that learning curve.
• And even experienced and successful, systematically strategic business leaders can bring a priori assumptions and bias into their strategy. And as with any other essentially axiomatically assumed foundations for reasoning and understanding, these a priori factors usually enter into whatever actual strategy is in place without detailed examination, and even without explicit conscious awareness of their being there. (For a discussion that parallels and expands upon this point and that might offer a measure of insight as to my reasoning here, you might want to at least briefly peruse a short series that I offer in my Reexamining the Fundamentals directory as its Section V, titled Zeno’s Paradox, Moravec’s Paradox and Rethinking How We Project Forward in Our Planning.)

But the word “strategy” per se has to be put into a context of meaning and execution, if you are to understand it as an overall system and particularly if the goal is to arrive at something in the way of a proposed best practices understanding as to how to develop, maintain and carry through on it. That is what I at least begin doing here, by proposing that:

• Strategy, or at least effective strategy is first and foremost a process of synthesis. It is a process that gathers in a wider scope and range of input and of types of input than would be necessary or even efficiently desirable at a more tactical level. It gathers in a more disparate range of types of data and pre-developed knowledge, than would offer value at that lower closer to hands-on management level, and it organizes all of this into a wider-ranging, longer timeframe synthesis that would be used for future, more detailed planning and execution and across wider structural and functional areas of the business than most tactical planning and execution would address.
• Put somewhat differently, but addressing the same basic point as that, if tactical thought and planning and their execution are carried out at one level of functional scope in a business, the strategy that that area of tactical responsibility is supposed to support is always taking place at an at least somewhat larger and more inclusive level, that would address a wider range of tactical needs and their fulfillment too, than would be more locally addressed there.

I am writing here of taking a big picture approach, and perhaps even a broad brushstroke one – but more importantly I am writing here of developing a wider level of understanding of the business where it is now, where it is headed now and where it might be brought to, that is fundamentally accountable to the details too – and that would be updated and even fundamentally changed if needed, if new and emerging empirical detail were to prove that necessary. So if you like to think of strategy in big picture and broad brushstroke terms, I would pursue that understanding with an ongoing awareness of how everything arrived at and everything assumed going into it, is or is not supported by and sustained by actual ongoing empirical reality as experienced throughout the organization and as faced from its markets and other aspects of its overall context.

I have written about strategy and the overall strategic process and approach in other series in this blog, and cite as one orienting resource for that, my series: Strategic Planning and the Process of Strategy (as can be found at Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 314 and loosely following for its Parts 1-7.) My goal here in this series is to focus on how strategic thinking and its follow-through, and tactical thinking and its, can be more effectively brought together and aligned, and in both normative and less expected business contexts and situations. And this brings me to the still to-address list that I am working my way through in this series, as repeated here, reformatted with the case study example of Parts 1 and 2 in mind that I began all of this with:

• I will move on in this narrative to discuss the questions of identifying disconnects in this, and as early as possible when they do arise.
• And I will consider and discuss startups, as a business context where founding executives can find themselves facing learning curve challenges in understanding and addressing the issues that I raise here,
• And the sometimes significant challenges that large and complex business organizations can create in aligning strategy and tactics, with effective disconnect identification and remediation implemented as a core ongoing due diligence process.
• And I will return again to my starting case study example for this series, to consider lessons learnable and remediative approaches that might be possible for that business – and at least some of the trade-offs that would have to be resolved in that too.
• And that as noted above, in anticipation of discussion to come, is where some very specific, crucial negotiations-related issues enter into this series’ narrative.

I will at least start my next installment to this series focusing on connections and disconnects between strategy and tactics, and with a goal of developing an organizing model as to how things can work or go wrong in this, and in how the later of those possibilities can be addressed and remediated. Then I will consider those two categorical examples for how this would be implemented and performance reviewed and course corrected as needed. And then I will reconsider my impetus case study, in light of all of this discussion and delve into the implementation issues and challenges that all of this of necessity brings with it.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 4, and also at Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3 of that directory.

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