What they couldn’t teach me about strategy in business school

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What they couldn’t teach me about strategy in business school

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At a 1980s management meeting, a retired U.S. Army colonel did what my business school professors couldn’t: he showed us how to convert strategy into effective business actions. As taught in school, strategy is often filled with abstract concepts, and focused on particular interests of the professors who teach it. MBAs are taught the tools of strategy, but seldom the skills to implement and manage it.

A former planner and operations expert, the colonel observed this first-hand when he subsequently joined the private sector. The disconnect between management and the “troops” could be substantial – misalignment, weak synchronization of priorities, and modest results to show for the effort.

In response, the colonel adapted the principles of military command to those of business to create a blend of concrete, practical and effective management principles and methods.

Here are five of those principles that you may find useful, too.

  1. Phase lines guide operating decisions. Phase lines are easily identifiable landmarks used by commanders to gauge and coordinate forward progress in battle. The next “phase” go-no go decision is made after assessing the amount of time, and battle resources remaining, to reach this point. The principle is readily adaptable to sales and marketing activities. E.g. If a marketing campaign fails to achieve a specified lead conversion rate within a defined time frame, it is overhauled.
  2. Management is the glue that binds strategy and tactics. Military planning has three levels of importance: (1) strategic (2) operational (3) tactical. Without effective operational know-how, individual tactics cannot effectively support strategy. Middle and senior line managers are crucial components. To function well, those roles must be properly defined, staffed, and given clear and relevant objectives.
  3. Strategies exist on two levels. The military distinguishes between military strategy (the use of military resources to achieve national policy aims) and grand strategy (the coupling of military and non-military resources – diplomatic, economic, financial, informational – to achieve a nation’s agenda). A business relies on many organizational practices to support its grand strategy – hiring and compensation, corporate social responsibility, management of public opinion, government affairs and lobbying. Yet, the organizations housing these functions may not play a direct role in its business strategy. Managers in well-managed companies know the role they perform.
  4. Differentiating outcomes and activities. In the military there is a clear distinction between coordinating and conducting the activities of battle, and achieving victory. Likewise, effective managers are those who ensure their people know the difference between the activities they perform, and the outcomes they are paid to achieve. There should never be confusion between the two.
  5. Execution is a three-legged stool. Campaigns are won when all three planning levels – strategic, operational, tactical – are skillfully and artfully coordinated. Execution is the “whole” that emerges from the sum of these parts.

By extension, successful execution in business requires skill at all three levels.

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Written by Michael

Michael Douglas has held senior positions in sales, marketing and general management since 1980, and spent 20 years at Sun Microsystems, most recently as VP, Global Marketing. His experience includes start-ups, mid-market and enterprises. He's currently VP Enterprise Go-to-Market for NVIDIA.

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