Let’s face it; as a species we homo sapiens are not great at strategy. We evolved to face immediate threats like covid not longer-term ones like climate change. Neil Young asked us to: “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” but we ignored him. We’ve known about demographic change for decades but the crisis in health and social care still took us by surprise. We much prefer instant to deferred gratification.
Of course, where there is exceptional leadership, endless resources and limitless talent we can achieve miracles. When JFK set the target in 1963 to put a man (inevitably not a woman in that era) on the Moon by the end of the 1960s he said: “we choose to do it not because it is easy but because it is hard”. In 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface. If you can deliver a strategy you get a real competitive advantage since so few succeed. Sadly JFK never saw it since Lee Harvey Oswald had other plans for him.
When I was interviewed for the post of Registrar at Nottingham University in 1991 I was asked to give a presentation on a plan for the University for the next ten years. I didn’t have much of a clue so I asked the panel to imagine it was 1981 and my environmental scan predicted that Nelson Mandela would be President of South Africa, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. It got me the job because the panel realised, like Mike Tyson, that everyone has a plan until they get punched on the nose.
In 2005 I wrote a paper for the University of Exeter entitled “Imagining the Future” since predicting it is tricky. Rather than try to get granular like so many strategies the approach was binary; basically a bet on red or black, odds or evens. We took the view that this was the century of biology and health not physical chemistry, Asia not Europe and higher private rather than public contributions to tuition. This led to investments in life sciences and medicine the student experience and internationalisation and disinvestment in areas like chemistry which we couldn’t make work while investing elsewhere. The gamble (or, as I like to think, calculated risk) paid off and Exeter moved from the bottom of the former 1994 Group to the Russell Group within six years.
There are more important things than strategy, such as avoiding category errors and grinding out good decisions day after day. Brexit anyone?
As my colleague Nicola Horsman has pointed out in a recent blog the process of strategy formulation is important. People need to own it and believe in it and, not least, understand it! But the key thing is delivery. So many well-meaning strategies fail because they’re never delivered.
So here are my top tips for strategists:
- Keep it simple,
- Change it if it doesn’t work,
- Focus obsessively on delivery,
- Invest when others retrench,
- Disinvest in things that aren’t working,
- Never believe your own publicity,
- Place a premium on leadership,
- Always be better than your previous best.
And finally remember the words of John Lennon: “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.
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