By Roger Martin
When I ask business executives about their company's strategy — or about an apparent lack thereof — they often respond that they can't or won't do strategy because their operating environment is changing so much. There isn't enough certainty, they argue, to be able to do strategy effectively. This is an argument I hear particularly often in high-technology sectors. It is almost a mantra there, a badge of pride and superiority: "We run at breakneck speed in the world of high-tech and there isn't time to stop and do strategy. It will emerge naturally over time." The implication is that only boring corporate bureaucrats in large corporations, where the future is (apparently) certain, engage in strategy. Growth companies, it seems, have far more urgent things to do.
I find this to be pretty interesting logic. Essentially, the argument is that the present it is too uncertain to make any strategic decisions about the future. However, at some future time, things will be certain enough to make choices.
I really wonder what makes them think so. Life is and always has been uncertain. If we live in an uncertain, fast-moving, turbulent world today, why would it be any different a week, a month or a year from now? If the world is too uncertain to choose today, what is it about the future than will make things more certain? At some point, do we simply declare the world to be certain enough to make strategy choices? How will we know it is the day? What criteria will we use to decide the requisite level of certainty has been reached? Or will we simply put of choosing forever, because certainty is utterly unachievable at any stage?
The danger, of course, is that while we are using uncertainty as an excuse to put off making strategic choices, the competition may be doing something else entirely. They may be strategizing their way to first mover advantages and positions that leave few if any attractive options in the market.
What I generally observe about companies that say that it is too uncertain to do strategy, is that they complain after the fact about having been blindsided by something unexpected. Their narrative tends to be that when it happened, it was just too late to do anything constructive about it. The failure wasn't at all their fault, because the industry is uncertain and this kind of stuff just happens naturally.
This is beautifully self-sealing logic that absolves leaders completely from any responsibility. Leaders who use this logic ensure that they don't acquire any useful lessons whatsoever from the experience. Because they have a narrative that says it wasn't their fault, they don't explore their actions. And when their company crashes and burns because it was beaten by some other company that actually had a strategy, these leaders go somewhere else and do the same thing all over again.
In truth every company has a strategy. Whether it 'does strategy' explicitly or not, the choices that it makes on a daily basis result in the company operating on some part of the playing field (i.e. making a where-to-play choice) and competing there in some fashion (i.e. making a how-to-win choice). It matters not a whit whether the industry is highly uncertain, every company competing in it has a strategy.
Without making an effort to 'do strategy,' though, a company runs the risk of its numerous daily choices having no coherence to them, of being contradictory across divisions and levels, and of amounting to very little of meaning. It doesn't have to be so. But it continues to be so because these leaders don't believe there is a better way.