Different Schools of Strategy

You might think there’s only one school of strategy that counts — this here School of Planning. But as it turns out, we are large, we contain multitudes.

Within one School of Planning, there are almost as many schools of thought as there are strategists. This month’s Session gave us a whistlestop tour through some of them.

Three speakers took the stage to school us — VCCP’s Planning Director, Gethin James; Andrew Von Hirschberg, who’s currently supporting a roster of incubating start-ups at the ‘venture builder’ Blenheim Chalcot, and George Proudfoot of The App Business — or TAB, as they tend to call themselves (because we all know there’s quite a bit more to creating transformative digital services these days than apps).

Gethin began by interrogating the distinction between theory and practice, taking us on a stroll through varying schools of theory that conceive of strategy as a simple, informal thought process; as an analytical step-by-step activity that can be defined and replicated; as a process that is informed first and foremost by positioning, or as something that is fundamentally about finding a fresh perspective. When it comes to actually getting stuff done, he distinguished between a focus on understanding and challenging our mental frameworks; an iterative approach of identifying emergent patterns in the midst of constant action, and a view that holds that strategic implementation is political — it’s all about the power games. Anyone interested in reading more on this would be well advised to find a copy of Henry Mintzberg’s Strategy Safari.

Andrew’s depiction of the world of start-ups — as contrasted with his previous life in large multinationals — tallied neatly with Gethin’s description of the practice by which strategy is implementation. The pace and interative approach of start-ups reduces the gap between theory and practice to zero — but Andrew was keen to stress that, while it might be fashionable to dismiss corporate strategy as lumbering and outdated while reifying a lean start-up approach, that’s a gross oversimplification: both cultures can learn a lot from each other’s schools of strategy, systems and processes.

TAB create digital products — or, above all, digital services. And, as George explained, strategy in this world is all about problem-defining, then problem-solving: putting the user first, identifying the problem you are trying to fix for them, figuring out what service your business can build to do that, and then using today’s mobile-first technology to facilitate it.

Perhaps it’s as instructive to think about what all these schools of strategy share as it is to think about what divides them. All involve agreeing where it is we want to get to from where we already are, then devising (via whichever strategic school most suits our people and our circumstances) the best — most efficient, most convincing, most compelling, most effective - route to getting there. As strategists, we might come on board at any point in that journey.

If we’re working with an established corporate on brand or comms strategy, those destinations (the business objectives) — and usually, the product or services on offer — tend to be more or less defined by the time our strategic skills are brought on board, and we’ll be working within the one, three and five (or more!)-year plans typical of the corporate business cycle. A strategist tackling this sort of problem is a pathfinder — identifying the best way to get there (using one of Gethin’s schools of strategy) and ensuring everyone’s on board so we can make it can happen.

For the start-ups Andrew supports, the gap between where we are and where we want to be will likely be defined in terms of days and weeks, not years, with the outcome of each iteration or launch helping to define the next goal — which might well mean (re)defining the actual product or service itself in the process.

And, for a digital product strategist like George, who could be working with either kind of business, that means starting even further back — the first role of strategy is to define the product itself and its role in its users’ lives.

What came across from all our speakers was the need to stay open-minded about different strategic approaches — to appreciate that different challenges, encountered by different businesses, at different stages of their lifecycles require us to be students of different schools. There’s no blueprint or off-the-shelf one-size-fits all model (phew: if it were that simple, we’d all be out of a job): figuring out which strategic approach to take depends both on reaching a crystal-clear understanding of the problem at hand, and a deep appreciation of the kind of people and organisation that we’re solving it for.

Ultimately, when it comes to different schools of strategy, we’re all always learning. See you in class next month.

The next Open Strategy School of Planning Session will take place in January — keep an eye on the Open Strategy Facebook page for more info.