The following scene took place in a crowded meeting room in London a few weeks ago. Around the room sat concerned, committed middle and senior managers. We were there to talk about the strategic challenges that each of us was facing back at base. One by one, people spoke up. 'Well, of course we're looking at all this at the moment as part of our strategic review...' 'We're going away for two days next month to discuss this ahead of a major restructuring exercise...' 'There is a live debate internally right now about which of our activities we should be continuing with and which we should be stopping. The board hasn't said anything to us yet, though...' 'We're just not clear how we should approach this going forward, but the directors are coming back with a plan later in the year...'
On the one hand, you could find this kind of talk mildly encouraging. Here were some serious, hard-working people acknowledging that they did not have all the answers, admitting that things had to change and looking forward to taking some positive action. And yet, how glum everybody looked. How flat. It was as though the phrase 'strategic review' was code for '12 hours of root canal work'. Everyone knew they had a lot of important thinking to do. Everyone was dreading it.
This is not the way it is supposed to be with strategy. Yes, it's a daunting word (from the Greek, strategos, meaning a general - ie, it's real boss-class stuff). But for all you students of management out there, strategy is the big league. This is what Harvard Business School's Michael Porter has been going on about all these years - the 'five forces', competitive advantage and so on. It's what Gary Hamel and Henry Mintzberg and Joseph L Bower and... well, all of them, really, have been working on. It should be exciting, thrilling even. As Mintzberg has said: 'Strategy should not merely differentiate, it should also inspire.'