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This chapter is from the book

by Bruce Ahlstrand and Henry Mintzberg

Maybe not, claim two of this book’s authors, putting this book and all of us—writers and readers alike—into question. Strategy is treated as some kind of real thing—a conceptual artifact, if you like. Thus we hold retreats to "decide" on them, hire consultants to propose them, have CEOs present them to their boards, and hold case study discussions for students to learn about them. That way we get these things called strategies, these conceptual artifacts.

We wonder. Sure we hear about strategies, all nicely conceived and articulated. And so too do we hear about the failures of so many of them. Walter Kiechel, when he was at Fortune, wrote about a study that found only 10 percent of strategies successfully implemented. Tom Peters referred to this figure as "wildly exaggerated!"

Of course, failure is almost always attributed to implementation. Our strategies were clever, say the formulators; the problem is with you dumbbells in implementation. But the dumbbells might reply that if you formulators are so clever, how come you didn’t formulate strategies that we dumbbells were capable of implementing. The problem, however, may lie deeper, in the very separation of formulation and implementation. Organizations don’t stand still; they are dynamic entities constantly evolving. Unlike buildings, strategies do not get finished. They are works-in-progress, always changing. So their structures have to be fluid, their walls permeable. Executives cannot just hand them over to others for implementation the way architects hand over plans to builders for construction. Strategies, in other words, have to live, and so the people concerned with them had better be able to deal with them intimately, continuously. That is why the strategy process cannot be replicated in a classroom or a consulting study. Strategies from the consulting office or the case classroom, even the executive suite, often prove sterile because real strategies are about living customers and dynamic markets and evolving technologies, not about abstract strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities.

Don Schön has described designing as an intimate conversation with the situation, by committed and knowledgeable people in constant search for improvement. This is quite different from "experts" looking for the right answer, the generic strategy.

The artifactual view reifies strategy, turning it into something artificially tangible. It also puts strategy on a pedestal, out of reach. Who can ask hard questions of the lofty goals and bold intentions inscribed on a pedestal? They may look good to a business press hungry for fancy strategies, even to a board marginally informed and uncomfortable about carrying out its responsibilities. But do they allow others to act better?

So should we drop the word strategy altogether, in order to focus on what really matters—products and services, customers and markets, and how they combine? Should we at least stop obsessing about strategy?

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