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First Choose a Strategy, and Only Then Adapt

on Wednesday, 02.05.2016

I spend a lot of time studying new business ideas, then figuring out how to apply that knowledge to my clients in the middle market. Recently, I came across an interesting debate online about approaches to strategy shifts where the rapid rate of changes in markets and technology suggest “strategy resets” Here is my assessment.

The days are long gone when companies could leisurely plan and slowly execute. Established companies in industries with low barriers to entry, with nimble competitors able to pivot as opportunities emerge, reap the benefits of rapid swings in market share. This experience has encouraged some companies to modify their approach to adjusting strategy, given the volatility and vulnerability of their market position.

Traditional strategy has been bungled by slow-moving, overly processed activities (environmental scans, SWOT analyses, customer analyses, competitor analyses, financial modeling, and so on) that lead to a well-researched and well-written plan that may have only limited bearing on how companies actually behave and perform. Especially because the process is slow, and some argue slower than the rate of change (technology cycles have already outpaced planning cycles), a newer approach known as “adaptive strategy” has been suggested as the new mantra.

The argument for adaptive strategy goes like this: Market volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (together known as VUCA) are much greater now than previously. As a result, the traditional pace of strategic planning is inadequate to get answers and execute − and by then, another short planning cycle is needed. The implications of an adaptive strategy relate to the need for planners to be less oriented toward managing a stable situation and far more oriented toward leapfrogging competition with a disruptive strategy. Think about it: Since 1960, a company’s average stay in the S&P 500 has fallen from 60 years to less than 20 years.

I don’t buy the argument that one can move from adaptation to adaptation and enjoy sustained success. I agree with those who argue that serial adaptation is really an overreaction to managers who are faced with unsettling, rapid change and don’t feel like any inputs into formulating a strategic plan are stable enough to count on. There’s nothing new here: Strategy formulation has always required making hard choices in an uncertain context, and managers tend to seize on some pretext (VUCA included) to avoid making choices and taking responsibility for their choices. Sure, you can adapt, even repeatedly, but the point is that you first have to make a strategic choice that you can then adapt. The temptation regarding adaptive strategies could lead one to never make that initial strategic choice.

Strategy is not developed using a simple recipe, a fill-in-the-blank process. It is not simply using a standard set of tools (as mentioned above) or broad, conceptual, future-oriented, big-picture views. Strategy is iterative. The reality is that strategy is about all of those things, but an adequate strategy cannot be formulated with analysis or big-picture views alone. One has to tie the logic together. One simple approach is to develop a set of answers to some linked questions that cascade logically from first to last:

  1. What are our broad aspirations for our organization and the concrete goals against which we can measure our progress?
  2. Across the potential field available, where will we choose to play and not play? In which markets and segments?
  3. In our chosen place to play (market-offering combination), how will we choose to win against the competitors there?
  4. What capabilities are necessary to build and maintain to win in our chosen strategy?
  5. What management systems are necessary to operate to build and maintain the key capabilities?

In my consulting practice, I use these five questions to generate broad strategic alternatives. I then use a modified BSC (Balanced Scorecard) method to help companies formulate, communicate, and measure the results of their strategy, as well as develop tactical plans. The strategy and plan can be completed in a very short time, if management is aggressive.

Want help to take on strategy formulation on? Call me: (410) 598- 0719.

[Some content for this article was taken from a Harvard Business Review blog, contributed by Greg Satell ( on June 25, 2014, and Roger Martin, the author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.]