Strategy is good but key to success is implementation


Sun Tzu: “War is a grave affair of state. It is a place of life and death, a road to survival and extinction, a matter to be pondered carefully”

The Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu proved that you don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to be a great strategist. His textbook The Art of War is required reading if you want to be a leader; and many executives have a copy in the drawer of their desk. It’s just a pity they don’t all have it in their heads.

It is a book dripping with good advice, pungently put. “ No nation has ever benefited from a protracted war,” he says. And we have evidence enough to support that contention.

In a world where we are all too ready to reach for the heavy weaponry and go in hard, he advises that success in warfare comes “not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”. That is a lesson the west has learned to its cost from its interventions in Iraq, and in other conflict zones around the world.

It is a lesson too for business. In the same passage he says the highest form of warfare is to attack your opponent’s strategy. That is, of course, assuming your opponent has one.

Some organisations bumble on without a strategy, but that is not to be recommended. Others have a strategy, but that in itself is not a guarantee of success.

I have lost count of the number of organisations who think that publishing their strategy is an end in itself.

Management time is focused on crafting the words and making sure everyone’s input is reflected in the final document. The specially commissioned photographs are inspected; the i’s are dotted, the t’s crossed; copies are sent to partners, clients and opinion-formers. Then, like The Art of War, it is more often than not marooned in the draw of a desk, filed away or parked to gather dust on a bookshelf.

Strategies don’t implement themselves. It’s a truism I know, but all too often it is a fact overlooked by hard-pressed executives focusing on the next battle (and there are many to be waged) rather than winning the war.

Churchill, who knew a thing or two about strategy and warfare, put it succinctly. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Yesterday I attended the launch of the University of Stirling’s Strategic Plan for the next five years. (Here I have to declare an interest, I played a small part in its development and I work there).

The plan sets out three ambitions for the institution. It wants to be in the Top 25 of UK institutions, to increase its income by £50 million a year, and to increase its research profile by 100 per cent. There’s a fourth prong to its strategy, represented in the mnemonic 25:50:100i by the letter i: internationalisation. You cannot be credible as a higher education institution if you do not embrace globalisation.

Time will tell whether the University will achieve its ambitions. There are, however some predictors of success.

The first is ensuring everyone has bought into the strategy. “Have officers and men who share a single will,” says Sun Tzu. A sense of ownership is crucial and Stirling’s strategic plan was built from the bottom up and involved staff and students at all levels.

The second is having a clear message that is comprehensible. Stirling is not the first organisation to use a mnemonic to express its strategic intent. Carlos Goshen used Plan 180 to drive the turnaround of Nissan in the Noughties: One million additional units worldwide, eight per cent operating margin, zero net debt. 25:50:100i is memorable, and staff will be able to relate what they do to the achievement of each of the measures.

The third essential component is that the objectives should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited). These are.

The fourth predictor of success is the capacity of managements to keep an eye on the ultimate prize rather than being distracted along the way (and in a five-year period there are many distractions). Strategy is as much about deciding what not to do.

And finally, you need to tell people – inside and outside the organisation – what you want to achieve.

This is the scary bit. What if you don’t achieve what you set out to do? The simple truth is that you are more likely to achieve something you publically commit to – fear of failure is a great spur to action. And paradoxically, those who risk failure are more likely to succeed.

Michelangelo put it well: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

It is a simple fact of business that most strategies die through neglect.

Hard though the work may seem, getting a strategy to the launch phase is the easy bit. Peter Drucker was a modern Sun Tzu. All organisations should heed his warning: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Stirling is Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence, as any coach will tell you – you won’t do much unless you know where the goal-posts are. Stirling now has a nice shiny new set of goal-posts it will be interesting seeing how things go when the team runs out onto the field.




Law without compassion not worth having


Northern Ireland Assembly outsourcing moral qualms to England

Sometimes it is easier to avoid difficult issues, and many of us have successfully managed to negotiate our way through life by failing to face up to the harsh realities. The fancy phrase for it is ‘being in denial’.

So I must admit that my first instinct was to run a mile from the case of the young woman who was convicted of aborting her unborn child using pills bought over the internet. Whatever position one takes will offend some and enrage others.

For a very vocal group, this case is open and shut. Those who oppose abortion, and resist calls for a change in the law, have welcomed the judgment, but criticised the sentence for being ‘too lenient’.

Those in favour of liberalisation are outraged at her conviction. Had she lived anywhere else in the UK, she would not have been brought to court, indeed she would have been able to terminate the pregnancy with relative ease.

Somewhere in the middle are many who are uneasy about abortion, but who also know life is complicated and there are often no simple answers.

Even fully-paid up liberals recognise abortion is neither an easy option, nor a pleasant one. There are no winners. And without question, human life is precious. Most of us will have held a new-born in our arms and marvelled.

So how then do we deal with this particular case? The prosecuting authorities have robustly defended their decision to bring the case to court. The young woman pleaded guilty. The judge deliberated and handed out a suspended sentence.

Let us make the assumption, and I think we should, that all the parties to the prosecution and conviction acted in good faith.

Nonetheless, it is deeply troubling that a prosecution was pursued, and that a sentence of this nature was imposed. It was neither lenient nor compassionate, as some have suggested.

For me the issue here is not the letter of the law, nor even the moral and ethical issues pro and anti abortion, it is the human cost of pursuing a prosecution against a teenager at the lowest ebb. To what end?

The prosecution can only add to the problems this young woman is facing as she tries to rebuild her life.

The law in Northern Ireland, as it stands, is a nonsense. It puts doctors and nurses in an invidious position, it isolates vulnerable women and puts them at risk.

If you are rich, you can get around it. Many are prepared to put ‘morality’ to one side when it is their own who are affected. In reality we ship our moral qualms off to England.

When everything is stripped away, this case involves a deeply human tragedy.

The right way of dealing with it is through compassion, by showing a strong duty of care to the young woman – a teenager when this happened – and her flatmates who must also have been traumatised by the experience.

I think it is sad that those who claim the mantle of pro life ignore the complexities and call for harsher treatment of this young woman. Precious Life’s call this week for the sentence to be appealed because it “could set a dangerous precedent for future cases” demonstrates to me a disturbing lack of compassion.

Let there be no future cases. If this sentence is appealed – let the result be that it is set aside.

And we should face up to the need for change: a change that recognises the realities of human life – not as we want it to be, but as it is lived; a change that puts a comforting arm around those in need of support, not a pair of handcuffs; a change that addresses the causes of unwanted pregnancy, and does away with the stigma.

It’s time we stopped putting our heads in the sand, and discussed these issues in a mature and reflective way. There are deep moral, medical and social issues to be considered – but they should not be resolved in a courtroom.

A law that impacts only on the poorest and most vulnerable is criminal in itself.

I know it is said that even the devil can cite scripture for his own purposes, but when I reflect on our response to this case I immediately think of the passage from John’s Gospel – it repays reading 8: 1-11 – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

In this case I cannot and will not cast the first stone.