Traditional management models have been dismissed. Say goodbye to ‘filling in the gaps’ and learn how to use your own brain, says Professor of Strategic Management at Business School Netherlands Rosi Dhaenens. ‘Strategy should now be approached more in loops.’
What’s wrong with traditional strategic thinking? Dhaenens explains: ‘Many students expect you to provide them with models. However, if you reason according to a model you are merely following other people’s thoughts, while I want people to think for themselves. Strategic thinking encompasses much more than applying models and instruments. Models often replace the initial thinking process, and instruments are too often applied by means of routine and rituals thus creating a ‘sham’ sense of security. Strategy requires thinking – real thinking. Puzzling, contemplating and dealing with insecurity, simply because it will offer you a new solution.’
But models also provide insights, correct?
‘True, but they also make people lazy. They can reduce people’s active input to simply filling in a scheme. By definition, models are classical management tools based on yesterday’s world. They help to analyse the past and to predict the future, while especially now it is crucial to create and design the future ourselves.’
What does the modern strategic process look like?
‘In the old days one used to come up with a coherent analysis of the market and industry. Through that analysis people knew how the game was to be played. Nowadays we are increasingly focusing on the things we can create ourselves. The ‘Blue Ocean Model’ is one of the main reasons for this shift in mindset. If you conform to the rules of the game you end up in a very competitive ocean. The ocean is red, not blue: red with the blood of all the competitive players in the sea. However, if you create a market where the rules of the game are different, you will find yourself floating in a peaceful, blue sea. Cirque du Soleil is the best example of this type of ‘ocean’; it has changed the rules of the industry while sticking to doing what they have always done – being a circus. Classical management concepts actually more often hinder you than help you move forward.’
How can one recognise the new strategic way of thinking?
‘You can witness the development of new concepts and instruments that will contribute to designing the future. Take service design, for instance. It entails a way of thinking in which much attention is devoted to creative processes like storytelling and visual design, which implies designing your own reality.
Strategy used to be a linear process: first one would formulate a mission, followed by a vision, and subsequently set goals. A strategy would be designed based on all elements. Yet, maintaining this linear process will cause you to lag behind with developments that may be taking place within the organisation. People should strive to have a more flexible strategy; allowing it to make more ‘loops’. In doing so one can set goals at the highest level of abstraction, while simultaneously cautiously watching the impact and effects of that particular strategy. Through this process one crafts a strategy capable of dealing with actual information and ensuring a more adaptive and flexible environment.’
Why do many companies refuse to adopt this new style of thinking?
‘Most companies realise they need to adjust to a new, changing environment, but many of them have failed to build a routine to do so into their strategic process. The willpower to take a step back is important, especially when you are at a point when your organisation is not setting out or implementing large, detailed plans. This is the time to critically assess how plans are turning out. That means: hold regular meetings to reflect on how things are going. Women often tend to be better at this than men.’
Why is that?
‘Women are more given to reflection. Men will say: ‘the glass is half full, let’s stay positive’, whereas women have fewer difficulties accepting when something isn’t going as planned. On the downside: one of the ‘disadvantages’ that women manifest is that they tend to blame themselves when something goes wrong. Under these circumstances men will often say: ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself, it wasn’t just your fault, the market is to blame too’. Alternatively they will blame management or point out another reason why something or somebody else can also be held accountable. Men are capable of seeing a problem detached from the person, thereby allowing women to move on. They complement each other perfectly.’
How do you train men in this process?
‘I ask them what their strategy has done for them, what it has helped them to accomplish? I don’t want them to answer based on a theory, but to come up with something they thought through themselves. Furthermore I invite them to engage in a discussion. Men are good at that although they are very competitive and constantly want to be right. When a man postulates that he isn’t sure about something, I think: ‘That’s great, keep it that way!’ Dare to be unsure; to doubt things. Men are not at ease with the discomfort of not knowing.’
How does one master the process?
‘Simple: by doing. That is one of the great things about Business School Netherlands: Action Learning is based on the assumption that one should apply what one has learned directly to the organisation. Unremitting reflection should allow you to do this on a daily basis – which is a totally different approach from simply evaluating processes and thoughts. Keeping a diary and assessing strategies in the light of ongoing developments is essential to this iterative strategic process.’
Rosi Dhaenens is faculty member at Business School Netherlands for the International MBA programme: www.bsn.eu/internationalmba
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