Tuesday, August 12, 2008



A lot of people dismiss strategy in different ways. I remember when I was at the V&A sitting at a lunch next to Gyles Brandreth, a television "personality" who had (as public faces sometimes do) become a Conservative MP and had been given a junior spokesman role for culture. I suggested in our conversation that it would be helpful for museums such as the V&A to know on a longer than one-year basis what the Government's aims for the cultural sector were. As things were, we were effectively putting our five-year plans forward in a vacuum. What did I mean exactly? Well, I explained, some form of framework that would guide museums' planning, which could show the Government's own longer-term priorities (financial, social, intellectual, etc) in this area, which might encourage some form of cohesion in the sector, which... "Oh", said Brandreth, with distaste dripping from every syllable, "you mean A Strategy." Well yes indeed I did, but apparently the taste of the word Strategy was so little to the MP's liking that he promptly turned to his neighbour on the other side and didn't speak another word to me.

Then there are others who dismiss strategy as if it were a straitjacket, or incapable of change once drafted, of necessity a thirty-page all-inclusive document at least, or somehow only required by weak and indecisive minds. All wrong in my view.

To me, strategy is just the process of Engage Brain, completely indispensable, but also no more complex than it needs to be. The result could be half a page or twenty pages or a Post-It note; the important thing is setting out the thinking behind a course of future action. Yes, it's liberating to hear from Tom Peters that the best order of events is Ready! Fire! Aim! But the real question in that new threesome is not the unexpected order of the last two elements, but the meaning of the first (which by the way remains in first position). Ready for what? What does "ready" mean? To be ready, someone somewhere must have done some prep, must have assessed the broad picture, must have set the compass direction, must have scoped the opportunities. That is strategy forming. The problem with much of the current how-to strategy literature is that it over-emphasises the single massive total organisation business strategy, turns strategy-making into an exam (have you answered every question?), and suggests a model that requires such an investment by people that they will never want to throw the result away. I prefer lots of smaller strategies (frame condition: if they compete unproductively then the owners need a talking-to). There's more openness to change (tune or replace) one or more as conditions change. There's less distance between strategy and action, hence less abstraction and more reality, and as a result less of an issue with achieving conformance. And each smaller strategy will almost certainly be a better fit for the people who apply it than a one-size-fits-all solution from on high.

So don't dismiss strategy, do it, but do it small and simple and often.


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