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.