The World of Front Lines that Work Bottom Up

Strategy that works is bottom-up, not top down. In the information age, the power of the individual is increasing, but only if we are capable of adapting to our external opportunities. This new power of individuals is even reshaping the direction of the large organizations for whom they work.

Harvard professors Joseph Bower and Clark Gilbert examined a number of studies into corporate strategy and made an interesting discovery:

'"What we have found in one research study after another is that how business really gets done has little connection to the strategy developed at corporate headquarters.

"Rather, strategy is crafted, step by step, as managers at all levels of a company - be it a small firm or a large multinational - commit resources to policies, programs, people, and facilities.

"Crafting strategy is an iterative, real-time process; commitments must be made, then either revised or stepped up as new realities emerge."

Harvard Business Review, February, 2007

That "iterative, real-time process" is what the front-line people in organizations need to utlize, but they do not know how and most "strategic plans" do not teach them how.

The author's go on to tell the story of Intel's strategic exit from the memory market. That decision was made by Andy Grove and Gordon Moore after Intel's revenues from memory had fallen to only 4% of total sales. This means Intel's front-line people had already exited the memory market and the key executives just recognized the reality after the fact. People just like you, working on the front lines, were making the decisions that were determining the future of Intel.
The question the Harvard professor's ask is, "Who's in control?" They come to the conclusion that though the CEO's can make decisions about resource allocation inside the organization, it is individuals who must make the key competitive decision. Those decisions start with what information to pass up the chain of command. Those in power do not even know what is going on unless we tell them.

Innovation and Customers

This new world brings out the innate creativity in all of us if we know how to use it. In their study, what is most telling is that the professors define "operating managers" to include salespeople, which means that they are really talking about decision makers rather than traditional managers. When you are asked to make decisions, you can either "constrain innovation" or "redirect and improve strategy in very innovative ways."

If you are trained (as are most employees today) only to follow someone else's process, your ability to innovate is constrained. However, if you are trained in how to safely explore the competitive terrain with your decisions, you tap into the source of a flow of creative new ideas.

The big discovery here is that strategy depends on adapting to the environment. It is the decisions outside of the organization, the decisions of customers, that matter the most. While many organizations talk about "staying close to their customers," the reality is that it is the front-line people who are close to the customers, not people who are further up the hierarchy.

You have to learn how to filter out what is valuable in the flow of information. The filter keeping out the bad ideas and letting in the new ideas has to be on the surface of the organization. Good strategy doesn't arise from letting everyone dictate your priorities, but you have to be trained to identify the opportunities that are hidden all around you.

A Larger Perspective

The front-line strategy the evolves from Sun Tzu's Rules simply puts that knowledge into a larger, more powerful context. If you need more useful perspectives rather than more detailed knowledge of processes, this is the training you need. If you need to develop expertise more quickly to grow, training in strategic decision-making is key.

Sun Tzu offers a simple, scalable model for understanding complex, detailed situations. This perspective makes day-to-day decision-making clearer, easier, and faster. The relevant information is identified more quickly. Potential opportunities and better responses pop out of the background of constant information noise. More importantly, this perspective generates powerful insights into how progress can be made in difficult situations. It gives your people a leverage point for their creative energy.