The end of big strategy

Why modern organisations are embracing product management and emergent strategy in an age of increasing complexity and unpredictability.

A chess piece is on its side on a chess board, on a yellow background.

Although the old adage "No one ever got fired for hiring a big strategy consultancy" still prevails, we are seeing a shift.

Despite all of our new fangled tech, tools, data and frameworks, formulating a long term strategy based on a prediction about the future has become increasingly fraught and even foolish.

That’s because we’ve entered a new age of accelerated disruption and complexity. We’re faced with an ever-shifting business environment. Our world is marked by unpredictability, where customer preferences and behaviours constantly, and at times swiftly, evolve. New players can disrupt the status quo with remarkable speed, and the ramifications of transformative technologies can render thinking about the future void.

This new reality exposes the false certainty and limitations inherent in consultancies crafting extensive, long-term strategies, which many businesses continue to rely on and organise their teams and resource deployment around.

We see an active shift to a new approach to strategy and execution built on both deliberate and emergent strategy, flexible, composable team structures which can discover and deliver as well as learning loops and technologies that help us navigate this landscape.

The manufacturing org: big strategy and delivery

In the 20th century industrial manufacturing paradigm, the cost and time to innovate, design, build and release a product to market was part of a substantial, multi year lifecycle. In some industries, this translated to multi-million dollar even multi-billion dollar investments. During this era, it wasn’t unusual to create 10-year or even 20-year blueprints hinged on a meticulously outlined strategy and a big assumption of perfect execution. But what if we’re wrong or the world around us changes?

In the last 20 years, digital technology has accelerated an organisation's ability to rapidly strategise, decide, act and learn. This is where rigid long-term strategy finds itself struggling to keep pace with the fluidity of the world. Digital technology can create and harness data which may help decipher what consumers desire, adopt and rally behind it’s also crucial to shifting market dynamics and powering new competitors.

Why does so much digital delivery still look like manufacturing output?

Many organisations create strategies and budgets that morph into extensive delivery plans that often prioritise prescriptive outputs and solutions rather than being orientated around genuine value for the business and the customer.

The implementation of such prescriptive solutions often reflects a culture where leaders and teams are directed and incentivised against output rather than outcomes, and where management is more concerned about apparent progress than learning. And if the time from conception to deployment is slow and monolithic, by the time your business reaches a point where you begin to reap rewards, the value achieved may only be incremental, or worse, the potential to realise value has been lost.

The focus in many organisations is on overhauling technology; awaiting the big launch where everything aligns, instead of a cross functional transformation of how value is delivered. This approach is yielding poor returns and creating a bigger trust gap between “the business” and “technology and delivery teams”.

From agile to agility, plans to preparedness

Agile software development has captured the imagination of CXOs worldwide. Adaptability, teamwork and efficiently delivering value to the customer is the mantra. Agile breaks projects into smaller, manageable phases, known as sprints, allowing teams to adjust as they go. CIOs and IT organisations have embraced agile because it offers flexibility, speed, and responsiveness, ultimately leading to quicker results and a focus on customer needs.

But, there’s a real danger when agile remains purely a technology thing, rather than a business wide shift in terms of culture and value transformation. The true meaning of agile has never been adopting new tools and jargon; it's always been about putting the customer at the forefront, fostering collaboration and embracing a continuous discovery and learning at every level of the business.

When the technology aspect of agile overshadows its cultural aspects, it's like putting a Ferrari engine in a Ford estate — it may go faster, but it's going to break, failing to deliver the result you expect. The key lies in the holistic adoption, enablement and investment in agile philosophy across all levels of an organisation, from leadership down to the grassroots, where its transformative power can be harnessed.

Continuous strategy, discovery and delivery

So, how do you go about crafting a strategy that is adaptable and responsive to a world in flux? It requires a shift in mindset, moving away from a rigid, one-off strategy towards a more iterative and flexible model that embraces the concept of continuous learning and attentive listening.

Declaring that 'Big strategy is dead' is dramatic – what I’m rallying against is 'big plan, then big execution.' Strong beliefs, held lightly.

To take their businesses forward companies need to become learning machines, reassessing risks and identifying opportunities to create sustained value. This means speaking to customers, conducting more experiments to validate concepts, gauging interest before committing to a transformation strategy, scrutinising market trends and staying ahead of emerging technology and industry shifts.

By infusing learning into each phase of implementing strategy, businesses can maintain agility and tailor their approaches so they can respond to insight and evolving customer demands.

Long live the right kind of strategy and transformation

I still consider myself a strategist and I believe leaders still hold a responsibility for setting the ambition and vision for where an organisation wants to be and what they want to be. Creating alignment on where we want to be and making better decisions is crucial. However, the businesses that prevail will be the most adaptable. They will rebuild themselves by embracing composable technologies, learning cultures and experimentation mindsets to launch, learn, adapt and repeat as the way to progressively unlock value, be it revenue, data or efficiencies.

High-performance modern product-driven organisations do precisely that. They've got the smarts to make keen observations, understand their surroundings, possess the wisdom to make sound choices and adapt continuously. This means they place better bets than their rivals.

This is the hard bit of digital transformation and it has to come from within. Transformation demands leadership, cross-functional collaboration, room for experimentation, a safety net for failure and learning. It calls for accountability, autonomy and a deep awareness of the ecosystems it operates within. It thrives on reflection and humility. This, and only this, will help you embrace a shift in your organisation toward realising value through the transformation of culture not capability.

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