Tregoe, Benjamin B., and John W. Zimmerman (1980). Top Management Strategy: What It Is and How to Make It Work, 35.

Story behind the Passage

One of the lessons of blogging will definitely be that life and thoughts proceed in circles. It is just a matter of how deeply you dive into every loop, I guess. In my case, I seem to be diving to the very bottom every time I make a new discovery to then find out that I could have saved the trip because the “new” finding is quite “old.” Well, that is not true, of course. All deep dives are necessary and helpful because the learning is much more profound if you really hit rock bottom. The same applies to the importance of “strategy.” Before I continue, here is how Tregoe and Zimmerman define strategy in the book:

“We define strategy as the framework which guides those choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization. Those choices relate to the scope of an organization’s products or services, markets, key capabilities, growth, return, and allocation of resources.” (Tregoe 17)

They are right in pointing out that many people, even business leaders, use the term strategy carelessly. And, especially Tregoe, in his usual manner of making things simple, clarifies that strategy relates to the question of “what we want to be” and “how we get there.” This gift of reducing the very complex to the very simple, at least when it comes to words, is something that characterizes Tregoe’s work in general, not just his books. Above all, he is the co-inventor of the consulting firm and method Kepner-Tregoe which I got to know many years ago via my boss in consulting.

My thoughts on strategy came more of less out of the blue as I realized that strategic thinking is not at all self-evident. Because my brain is somehow wired to have this natural tendency to always think “where do I want to get and how do I get there,” I forgot that there are other ways of thinking — other sequences when it comes to considering the goal and the action. This was also something that struck me right at the beginning when I started working with startups. Due to the hyper-activism that they tend to employ, they hardly think of strategy first. And as I got more into the startup bubble, I sort of threw all prior knowledge about and belief in the use of strategy over board.

This was bullshit, obviously.

This is what I mean by “going in loops.”

Strategy is essential.

The moment when I now realized how essential it is, I noticed that some people either never think of strategy or they know they have trouble thinking strategically. And thinking in the case of strategy is closely related to writing. There definitely is a connection between people who have a tendency and even preference for expressing their thoughts on paper and those never doing so. The latter are the typical “managers” who are constantly in the doing mode. Strategy-making, that is for sure, does not work if you do not take time to think. This might be why Tregoe and Zimmerman came up with this sub-title of “Strategic I.Q.” So, I guess, I am not telling anybody anything new except for the fact that I knew about the importance of strategy at age 20 or even earlier but now in the middle of all the “let’s do it” and “agile” hype, I simply threw all crucial convictions over board.

How stupid!

How familiar!

I am in good company!

My Learnings

In spite of the differences between external and internal change, there is one important similarity: both require raising strategic questions first, before any action is taken.” Well, I kind of hinted at this necessity to think before you act above already. It cannot be repeated often enough. And the thing I want to add now is the relationship to “change” because this is what seems to be messing up the minds of leaders and managers around the world. Remember, Tregoe published this in 1980! It is still as up to date as ever because strategy is not just a century-old invention, it is as old as human history, especially as far as wars are concerned, as I mentioned before when I talked about the works of Sunzi or Attila the Hun.

So, what I am hinting at is the argument that strategy is commonly said to be superfluous because there is so much change. The opposite is true because, if you look closely, all the talk about being flexible, agile, creative… in responding to change all end up with one simple finding: Change goes along with a multitude of possibilities, i.e., possible states of perceived reality, and the only way you can move forward is by making a decision under uncertainty. And this decision will have to be based on your priorities, on your plan — on your strategy. You need to define what you want to be and do in the future, nobody else will do it for you. Well, some people might try to do it for you, of course, but then you are basically not the leader of your company or organization anymore if you allow this to happen.

For me, there is also a deeply personal, even emotional, component to strategy. And I am just realizing how important this is for my effectiveness. No matter how much I like quick pragmatic action, I do not feel satisfied if I have no clue at all what the overarching goal is. Yes, I told myself and even others that this highly creative approach of not having a plan is the ultimate way of getting things done faster and better. This is not true and, thanks to my brain, I think, I never really trusted myself when I said this which is why I still acted strategically in most cases when there was a need to not fool around. And this is the emotional side I mean: If I am not acting strategically, I am not just ineffective, I am also lost and not doing anything.

Good thing this insight finally hit me before I hit rock bottom again…

Reflection Questions

1) Do you consider yourself a strategic thinker? Why/not?

2) Has the significance of external changes for strategy making and implementing changed significantly in the past ten years according to your perspective? In how far (not)?

3) How do you think about the idea of a “strategic IQ”? Is strategic thinking related to intelligence in your view?

Founder & CEO of Companypoets