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Leadership & Strategy: a Eureka! moment

I’ve been reading Henry Mintzberg’s Strategy Bites Back and it’s a breath of fresh air. Some choice soundbites from the book:

“Everyone knows where a straight line goes… but a squiggly line can go anywhere. Computers generate straight lines. Life generates squiggly ones. That’s why your predictable business strategies never turn out the way you expect.”

“Strategy is when you are out of ammunition, but keep on firing, so the enemy won’t know.”

“When in doubt, use a bigger hammer.”
– Dobin’s Law (predicated on that famous maxim that to a man who has a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. In other words, an inflexible strategy can programme your organization’s actions and responses in ways that are too rigid and often inappropriate).

“This is the course in Advanced Physics. This means the instructor finds it difficult. If he didn’t, it would be called Elementary Physics.” – Louis Alvarez, Nobel Laureate

“Strategies are to organizations what blinkers are to horses” – Henry Mintzberg

Strategy and Execution

Mintzberg’s most profound insight into strategy, which was a real Eureka! moment for me when I first read it, is this:

Strategy and execution are not mutually exclusive and they are not sequential. There isn’t the neat division between the two that most management schools like to teach. This is what Mintzberg gets and other strategists don’t.

Mintzberg’s insight says strategy doesn’t necessarily come first (‘think’ then ‘do’): it’s not that simple a divide. Strategy and Execution intertwine, so stop separating them in your head.

“Virtually everything that has been written about strategy-making depicts it as a deliberate process. First we think, then we act. We formulate, then we implement. The progression seems so perfectly sensible. Why would anybody want to proceed differently?” he writes.

He goes on: “While it is certainly true that many intended strategies are ill conceived, I believe that the problem often lies one step beyond, in the distinction we make between formulation and implementation, the common assumption that thought must be independent of [and precede] action…Smart strategists appreciate that they cannot always be smart enough to think through everything in advance.”

Yes, yes, yes. Eureka! Why do so few other get this? Including some of those billed as the biggest experts on strategy in our time? Breaking the distinction between Strategy and Execution frees leaders up to be more agile and flexible. Thank goodness for Henry Mintzberg.

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