The Positioning of Sun Tzu's strategy

At our first Trainers Meeting, we identified a opening in the marketplace for training for “front-line” strategy, that is, strategy that could be used in the day-to-day execution of the business. A number of articles and communications since our meeting have verified that more and more people are becoming away that in terms of “strategy” something vital is missing.

There is a widespread disconnect between what is called corporate strategy and the execution of that strategy in real world activities. Allan Elder found several interesting articles that make exactly that point. The one in Forbes Magazine, called “Strategy on the Front-Line  has a great title, but just suggests some of the problems that we focus on. Another called, Putting Leadership Back into Strategy in the Harvard Business Review goes a little deeper.  As Allan says in describing this article:

Like all articles it had its good and bad points but the Harvard attitude is very much the "Strategy by CEO and no other way" attitude. This article and many others like it continue to talk about "alignment" being the issue. Getting people to know the strategy from top to bottom. I have articles going back to the early 90s with this hypothesis. Now, in the kind of science I do it's not a Theory until it works. This is like raising taxes to help the poor. Every time it happens the poor are worse off and yet they keep preaching it. Kaplan has been teaching alignment for over a decade and it still isn't working. When do you stop beating a dead horse?

Allow me to brainstorm. (okay, it turned out to be more than brainstorming and turned into a mini commercial for your book - so sue me) :-) It's just the more I read the more frosted I get. Mostly because I am a victim of these two decades of incomplete strategy education.

Is "Alignment" really the cause of poor strategy execution?

Sun Tzu's "methods" are about people working together - systems. Organizations are systems driven according to Deming and many organizational experts. Since my post-graduate and doctoral training is in the area of Organization and Management I have read a lot of the research on the topics of developing organizational systems, processes, and procedures. I have been teaching organizational process design and improvement courses for Boeing, Northrop, California Edison, and other companies for nearly a decade. What I can say, with great confidence, is we know how to do this very well. It doesn't mean organizations are perfect, but they know how. The internal structure of these systems in an organization is covered within the Art of War and falls into the realm of "methods."

What is "Corporate" Strategy?

If you pay attention to popular media it would seem that CEO's articulate a sound strategy but it doesn't get communicated through the organization which is the cause of strategy failure. The proposed solution? Build n alignment. Here is the fallacy of all such articles and books that discuss alignment - ALIGNMENT IS PART OF STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT. You can no more have a sound strategy with poor alignment than you can have a sound chair with a broken leg.

How could such an error occur for decades and nobody notices? Unfortunately , Michael Porter established the current (yet fading) principles of corporate strategy in his seminal work "What is Strategy" in the early 1990s. His "Five Factor" analysis became the defacto method of "planning" a strategy for the next two decades. However, his plan only addresses the external environment (in Sun Tzu's way of thinking) and the "ground."

In Porter's approach two such factors include the "threat of new entrants" and the "threat of substitute products or services." These are basically the same thing. It's hard to imagine a "new entrant" that does not offer a substitute to your product or service. They can't possible offer the exact same product under the exact same conditions as you. A third element is existing competitive rivalry. All of these are part of the ground and some part of climate. His remaining two elements are the bargaining power of suppliers and buyers. Bargaining power has the element of "climate" involved.

What you find missing, that Sun Tzu provides, is any mention of the character of the leader (yesterday's big book seller - do you remember Enron?), the methods of execution and working together (today's big book seller), and mission (this comes and goes as a big book seller). According to Sun Tzu all of strategy starts with the mission and yet it's an afterthought in modern business strategy.

Where has this left us?

Due to the emphasis on ground and climate (and in very limiting ways) we have spent two decades with companies trying to develop strategies without a mission, without sound leadership, and without clear decisions on methods that support any tactical moves. It's no wonder that today the buzzwords in business are "alignment, leadership, and systems thinking." However, even today these are treated as add-on products. An after thought. It's not that Porter, Kaplan, and others are wrong. Far from it. Their approaches are exceptional, but incomplete.

Mike Weaver, a lecturer on Strategic Management at Leicester Business School in the UK, confirms Allan’s analysis about the large areas that people seem to be missing. Allan is familiar with the academic literature in America, and Mike is as familiar as anyone I’ve communicated with about the academic literature on strategy in the rest of the world. He has sent me a number of his presentations and slide shows, which provide overviews of the academic view of corporate strategy. I have attached one of his shorter presentations on the current educational view of what strategy is (introduction to strategy). He agrees that strategy, as currently taught is largely a management concept that offers little help to people on the front-lines in making competitive decisions.

This realization is what has lead us to our new direction in helping people understand what Sun Tzu's strategy really is and what people are missing. See that article below about our new certification program for yet another article which specifically identifies the need for strategy professionals.

Competitive Arenas: