What should business strategy look like? (Guest commentary)

No matter which way you slice it, people and leadership can't be offloaded
By Dave Crisp
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

It’s possible the question of what business strategy should look like isn’t any more complex a question than it was 50 years ago. But it certainly looks that way.

It may be that we analyze so many more aspects of business than we used to that we are developing paralysis by analysis — or at least overload by analysis. Or perhaps we are actually learning. Whichever, it bears thinking about.

Perhaps the key is simply to encourage everyone at every level to innovate, since product life cycles seem to have become increasingly short. How long can an iPhone or an iPad dominate? Will it be longer than Sony Walkmans or eight-track tapes?

My smartphone was obsolete when I bought it eight months after its introduction. It has been superseded about eight times after one year of use and is now virtually prehistoric, according to the booming companies making fortunes on planned obsolescence, a term that long ago was applied to the car industry — and we know what happened there.

Retail might not seem so temporary but we see companies changing strategy two or three times per year in some cases to try to get ahead or keep up. Airlines and cruise lines require staggering long-term investments in equipment, but seem to have to regenerate their pitches continually. Guessing whether short or long haul, or luxury or economy, should dominate seems to change while we’re still thinking about the last iteration. Hotels trade properties and renovate them into new images constantly to try to get the right mix of offerings into the right neighbourhoods.

Behind all these efforts are strategies that, for shorter or longer periods of time, dominate their respective executive teams’ thinking. Injected into the mix are entrepreneurial efforts from startups constantly getting things going and then being bought by large outfits attempting to buy new ideas they’re too unwieldy to think up and test themselves. Thus Fast Company magazine highlights Y Combinator — an incubator firm that hothouses many startups for just this purpose.

Any company that doesn’t fall into this frenzied struggle to innovate is thought to be in danger of becoming a zombie — a firm that’s fat, successful and in danger of sitting so long on its past successes that it is becoming one of the walking dead.

Are you getting heart palpitations yet? Your kids think you’re a dinosaur, your customers want something new every month and you haven’t figured out how to get employees onside with the latest sales program sent out three months ago.

Well, here’s another problem — 60 per cent of your managers don’t want to manage, according to a recent poll of 4,000 managers in the United Kingdom. They’re mad at HR now because they perceive it to be focusing too much on strategic contributions. They want a function that takes the weight off their shoulders for dealing with people, hiring, disciplining and developing — the parts of the job they dislike and fear most.

So, while you’re just waking up to the fact HR can be strategic and help improve innovation capability across the board, your line managers are desperately keen to avoid it.

OK, face that resistance, maybe drop the in-house innovation strategy that requires you to develop real leaders and just buy some of those expensive startups to bring in new ideas and energy.

But then you have to worry about how they’re going to be integrated and who will manage them. It won’t be the startup guys who dreamed of building a new product, getting tons of money for it and disappearing to build something else. They don’t want to be managed and your in-house guys don’t want to manage them or their new ideas. If they thought managing the same old employees, replacing one or two and getting the same old day-to-day stuff done was too hard, how much do you think they’re interested in something harder?

Did someone say we need to develop willingness and ability to show initiative and leadership at every level? Well, really, that’s not so new. We’ve been hearing that for decades. It’s just more critical now.

Which all sounds like more reason HR just became more important. Knowing the real underlying problems helps set us up to find solutions, but only if we face the facts squarely, no matter how scary they are.

Whichever direction you take with strategy, getting people ready and able to deliver on it is increasingly important. We don’t have years to get them onside, but days.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.

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