Alternatives to 'big strategy' in the age of permacrisis

20 October 2023 7 min. read
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For the best part of a century, the world’s leading businesses and governments have turned to a handful of major strategy consultancies at times of crisis – but as the nature of those crises has become more nebulous and wide-ranging, the services of strategy consultants need to evolve too. Tim Loo, executive director of strategy, Foolproof, argues that ‘big strategy' is outdated, and explores the benefits of embracing a smaller, more agile strategy that prioritises flexibility, and value delivery.

Owing to their rich heritage, esteemed reputation, external vantage point, deep domain expertise, and robust analytical capabilities, the conventional approach of engaging traditional consultancy firms has become the de facto standard for numerous large enterprises seeking to craft, develop, and implement effective business strategies. "No one ever got fired for hiring a big consultancy" has been the prevailing mantra.

One might be inclined to think that in this era of abundant frameworks, data, tools, and technologies, accurately forecasting what will keep clients relevant in their markets and generating future value, while formulating a strategy, has become more straightforward. However, the truth is quite the opposite.

Alternatives to 'big strategy' in the age of permacrisis

The present landscape boasts an array of resources, from machine learning, heat mapping software and CRM systems, to data analytics, web technology, AI and predictive analytics. Yet, it also presents a significant challenge due to an ever-shifting, complex business environment. This is a world marked by increasing unpredictability, where customer preferences and behaviours constantly, and at times swiftly, evolve. New players can disrupt the status quo with remarkable speed, and the ramifications of transformative technologies can render predictions about the future a formidable task. This reality brings to light the considerable limitations inherent in the conventional practice of crafting extensive, long-term strategies, which many businesses continue to rely on.

Big strategy in a time of permacrisis

For decades, consultancies have been dishing out five, 10, or even 20-year blueprints to enterprises. These weighty, long-term plans offer businesses a reassuring sense of stability and a well-lit path forward, instilling confidence at the board level and securing stakeholder commitment. The catch is, these plans hinge on the presumption that a meticulously outlined strategy upfront guarantees triumphant execution. But what if unforeseen curveballs are thrown, or fresh insights emerge, hinting at a game-changing departure from the master plan?

Though the planning and forecasting may appear all-encompassing, much of strategic counsel is founded on extrapolations from past experiences regarding future conditions. However, our current landscape resembles a perpetual crisis, marked by incessant disruptions and lightning-fast shifts that have become the norm. A rigid, long-term strategy finds itself struggling to keep pace with the ever-fluid nature of the modern world. This whirlwind includes the challenge of deciphering what consumers desire, adopt, adore, and rally behind, alongside profound technological leaps, shifting market dynamics, and a constant influx of up-and-coming competitors.

When we learn how wrong we are, it’s often too late

Another pitfall of many grandiose strategies is that they tend to morph into extensive delivery plans, often prioritising prescriptive outputs and solutions rather than zeroing in on genuine value. The implementation of such prescriptive solutions, from conception to deployment, often drags along at a sluggish pace, resulting in value that's neither substantial nor swift. By the time your client reaches a point where they begin to reap rewards, the value achieved may be merely incremental, or worse, what's deemed valuable might have morphed in response to market shifts.

The crux of the issue? Instead of concentrating on the transformation of the value stream and the continuous release of value to their customers and business, the fixation veers towards the overhaul of their technology, awaiting that monumental launch where everything magically aligns, often with underwhelming results.

From agile to agility, plans to preparedness

Agile is a modern approach to software development that has found its way into IT organisations and captured the imagination of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) worldwide. It's all about adaptability, teamwork, and delivering value to the customer efficiently. Instead of rigid, long-term planning, agile breaks projects into smaller, manageable phases, known as sprints, allowing teams to adjust as they go. CIOs and IT organisations have embraced agile because it offers flexibility, speed, and responsiveness, ultimately leading to quicker results and a focus on customer needs.

However, the challenge arises when agile is seen solely as a technological change. Many organisations overlook the fact that agile represents a cultural and value transformation. It's not just about adopting new tools and jargon; it's about putting the customer at the forefront, fostering collaboration, and embracing a continuous discovery and learning mindset. When the technology aspect of agile overshadows its cultural aspects, it's like upgrading the engine of a rusty old car—it may go faster, but it's still fundamentally outdated. The key lies in the holistic adoption of the agile philosophy across all levels of an organisation, from leadership down to the grassroots, where the real transformative power of agile can be harnessed.

From long-term planning to emergent strategy

So, how do you go about crafting a strategy in a world where objectives are in a constant state of flux, demanding the adaptability and responsiveness that businesses crave today? It's a substantial shift in mindset, moving away from a rigid, one-off strategy approach towards a more iterative and flexible model that embraces the concept of continuous learning and attentive listening.

Declaring that 'Big strategy is dead' may be a touch dramatic – perhaps it's more about signalling the demise of 'big plan, then big execution.' Long-term strategy and planning still hold their ground, albeit with a lighter footprint. Companies need to evolve into learning machines, forever reassessing risks and identifying genuine opportunities. This entails actively soliciting feedback from customers, conducting more experiments to validate concepts and gauge interest, scrutinising market trends, and staying ahead of emerging tech and industry shifts. By infusing learning into each phase of the strategy implementation, businesses can maintain agility and tailor their approaches in sync with real-time insights and evolving customer demands.

Becoming a modern digital product organisation

This isn't meant as a takedown on the concept of strategy. I still consider myself as a strategist. I believe knowing your direction for making better decisions is crucial. However, businesses heavily reliant on digital technology (and let's face it, who isn't these days?) now have the opportunity to launch, learn, adapt and repeat, progressively unlocking value, be it revenue, data, efficiencies or simply the knowledge to de-risk and adjust their strategy.

High-performance modern product-driven organisations do precisely that. They make smarter calls and place their bets faster than rivals. They've got the smarts to make keen observations, understand their surroundings, possess the wisdom to make sound choices, and adapt continuously.

This is the hard bit of digital transformation. And the inconvenient truth for big strategy consultancies is that this can’t be applied like a coat of paint from the outside or followed like a set of assembly instructions for a piece of furniture. It has to come from within.

It demands courageous leadership, genuine cross-functional collaboration, room for experimentation, a safety net for failure and learning. It calls for accountability across the board, while granting the autonomy to take action. It necessitates a deep awareness of itself and the ecosystems it operates within. It thrives on reflection and humility. It's a tough gig, no doubt, but how else can your company survive and maybe even thrive in a permacrisis?

Founded in 2002,Foolproof is a product and service design company, and part of Zensar, a global technology company. The firm employs a team working from Studios in the UK, India, South Africa, APAC and North America with specialist partners around the world.