Doing strategy

22 July 2018

After class on Friday, I had an email from a student saying, “Just wanted to give some feedback on the first discussion session and hopefully get more of an idea of what your looking for.” The sentiments expressed in the email were echoed by a few other students after class, so I thought it could be useful if I made my reflections on the email more public (with the student’s consent).

Because this paper centres around strategy that is what I thought we would be discussing.

I hope that through both these notes and through the progress of the course, you will see that we were—in fact—discussing strategy. But that will take some explaining …

As recommended in the course outline, after reading and analysing the case I started generating ideas and solutions for Pfizer NZ moving forward and the flow on effects/potential impacts of two strategies I had come up with.

So, is it fair to say, that your focus was on the `what’ of strategy.

Going back to the course outline, it describes strategy has having three dimensions: strategy process, strategy content, and strategy context. The ‘what’ of strategy is about strategy content. My experience of courses such as BUSINESS 101 and 102, INTBUS 202, and MKTG 301 is that their emphasis, vis-à-vis strategy, tends to be on the ‘what’ of strategy.

I’m going to drift into some history here, that is not really covered in the textbook (whereas the three dimensions are), as I find a historical perspective useful.

The earliest work of strategy, as applied to commerce/business, emerged in the early 1960s and is associated with people such as Ansoff and Chandler. They were largely concerned with what the organization should do; e.g., should the firm engage in related or unrelated diversification; should the firm be centralised or decentralised. The questions where about what was the best course of action for the firm. This was the dominant theme of both research into and the practice of strategy into the 1970s. In many ways I think this reached its zenith in the model from Schendel and Hoffer’s book

  1. Goal formulation,

  2. environmental analysis,

  3. Strategy formulation,

  4. Strategy evaluation,

  5. Strategy implementation, and

  6. Strategic control.

Note: Dan Schendel went on to found the Strategic Management Society, and to publish/edit the Strategic Management Journal; perhaps the most influential academic resources on strategy.

However, from the 1980s, scholars such as Mintzberg and Pettigrew became increasingly aware that how strategies came about had as a profound impact on the organisation/firm. This launched a range of studies into things such as, how diverse should the top management team of a firm be to make the ‘best’ decisions. Thus strategy was seen having two main threads; content (what) and process (how). To that mix, the context in which strategy occurs (where) was added; A bureaucratic organisation and a professional service firm operate quite differently and they make very different strategies in differing ways.

Although it would be nice to think that strategy content (what) is independent of how and where it is made—as Chandler would exemplify it as structure follows from the strategy of the firm—they are interconnected. Or as Mintzberg retorted; structure follows strategy as the left foot follows the right foot (I might have mis-quoted that).

So, how organizations make strategy, and how members of the class make strategy, is definitely a topic of strategy.

As an aside, since 1996 and Whittington provocative piece [@whittington_1996_strategypractice], there has been something of a recasting of strategy away from ‘something that an organisation has’, to ‘something people do’. This ‘strategy-as-practice’ movement has really taken off in Europe in the last 10 years or so.

So I came to class ready to discuss my ideas and hopefully can new insights.

And that is what I wanted to happen. But, how you came to your ideas also matters. Did you come to a good strategy because you had a robust process, or did you (as some firms do) get their by luck?

But sadly I felt very lost in class and was unsure why we were going in circles discussing where to focus and going into detail about how the drug industry works.

I would encourage you, and everyone else, when they feel lost or that the discussion is going in circles to say so. If you are feeling that way, I would expect others also feel like that.

That said, how the industry works (strategy context) is important to know, otherwise ones strategy process (or strategy content) may simply fail.

I felt all we accomplished in class was the first step of setting the scene and we didn’t go any further into what Pfizer NZ should do next.

You right. And perhaps if more people had a robust analysis we would have covered more. For example, despite a number of people saying they had done the 3Cs for Pfizer and Pfizer NZ, few were willing to but their analysis ‘on the table’.

Just so I can be more prepared for the discussion session next week can you let me know.

A) Do you want us to discuss how we approached analysing and deconstructing the case. (Like today’s class)

Or

B) Analysing and discussing the case in our own time and utilising the class space to discuss potential strategies, how they might be implemented and the flow on effects. (What I expected)

As noted elsewhere, every case is different. At times the class will focus on strategy process, at other times the focus will be on strategy content or strategy context. Sometimes we do all three. Then again, as the course outline notes, they are all interconnected.

What I look for is people to demonstrate robust thinking based on sound frameworks/models. In other words: To do the work of strategy and to present that work in the typical context of strategy work in a manner that others working in the field of strategy will regard as being competently done.