It’s very trendy to start writings like these with how uncertain the world is today, compared to the past. The future, some say, is not what it used to be. I’m not sure that’s true, at least as a general rule. If anything, the ease and speed with which information is transmitted around the world today should mean that we have fewer surprises. But we are still caught unawares, even by things in plain sight, and things do feel uncertain. Some very uncertain indeed.Perhaps we’ve always existed in a state of general volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a “VUCA” world if you like, although our tools for making sense of that and building organisations that are more resilient to that might be improving. Which is just as well, because was is undeniable is that our societies and the geo-economic and socio-political and technological trends that drive them, and along with these our businesses, are becoming more complex. The problems that we need to overcome, like global pandemics and climate change and loss of biodiversity in the world’s remaining wild places and the impact of emerging technologies on jobs, do seem more intractable than before.
This debate about whether things used to be easier and are now more difficult is usually little more than semantics. The point is that we do live in a “VUCA” world, now, and we need to be able to deal with that. So, when I talk about strategy, I try to avoid doing so in a purist sense, seeking to define it perfectly or explain it as one would the workings of a clock or an engine. I prefer to take a far more functional approach and explore what strategy means in the most practical of terms, applied to how firms can and should:
- develop workable views of the future
- make better decisions about where to focus their efforts and investments
- build business models that deliver the best performance
- develop the ability to change direction nimbly and quickly, when they need to.
As a discipline, strategy has been around for millennia. At its root, the term is derived indirectly from the Classic and Byzantine (330 A.D.) Greek “strategos” – which means “general.” So, it has been applied mostly to military strategy or to grand strategy (which means the highest level of national statecraft that establishes how states organise their military, diplomatic, political, economic, and other sources of power to ensure what they perceive as their interests.) As it has been applied as a discipline or specifically to business, the concept of strategy in any formally articulated sense is still quite new. Business strategy has furthermore evolved a great deal since it emerged in the mid twentieth century, just as business itself has evolved and along with it, our understanding of what delivers the best business performance over both the short and the long term. Perhaps because of its root it has traditionally been seen as the domain of the business’s ‘generals’ (the CEO and other most senior leaders) but that is changing as more transparent and inclusive models emerge.
As a subset of business science, strategy as applied to professional service firms is an even newer field and, within that, law firms are a particular breed, with the unique characteristics of legal services making them different enough to warrant a slightly different approach. It’s important to realise that no cross-industry ‘best practice’ exists when it comes to strategy. There are some general guiding principles and there are a multitude of tools and methodologies from which to choose. Some of these tools might be old but still perfectly functional for particular uses. Others are brand new and offer exciting opportunities. Others, including some still in frequent use today, are at best no the ideal way to achieve what is intended and, at worst redundant or producing results that are simply wrong. Like a skilled craftsman, a strategist needs to have a good working knowledge of the wide range of these tools and methodologies and be able to match them to the particular challenge or opportunity being faced, as well as to the particular industry and the specific organisation’s needs. It’s also important to understand the theory behind the practice. What is ‘competitive advantage’, actually? What creates it, and can it be sustainable in an ever-changing world? What really drives performance, and can an effective balance be struck between optimising short-term results and long-term sustainability? Does sustainability only mean economic sustainability, or does it include social and environmental issues? Which stakeholders have a right to benefit from the firm? Just partners? All its people? Clients? Society as a whole? Are millennials really that different to earlier generations over the past 50+ years and, if so, what implication does that hold for how a firm approaches strategy?
What information does a firm need in order to make the best decisions about its future? What does it need to know about its clients? Its competitors? The markets in which it operates? Another firm with which a merger is contemplated? Especially today, it’s easy to get overloaded with information that seems important but isn’t really, or to be misled by poorly presented information, or be swayed towards the wrong decision by power dynamics that exist in every firm. It takes skill and experience and a good grasp of the underlying theory to get quickly to the key questions that are the most important, and determine what kind of information needs to be collected, how that should be collated and analysed, and in what format the results should be presented to that they are as helpful as possible to those who need to make the strategic decisions. What processes need to exist for that information to flow through the firm, and for the best decisions to be made, and for those decisions to be communicated across the firm?
There is no shortage of strategy experts. If the practice of strategy can itself be called a profession then, at least compared to other traditional professions such as law or medicine or architecture or engineering, then it is a highly permeable. Anybody can proclaim themselves to be a strategist, so ‘strategists’ come from a very wide range of backgrounds. There is often merit in looking at a problem through entirely new eyes, perhaps seeking to balance left brain (critical analytical) and right brain (creative) thinking, or just bringing diverse functional perspectives to bear. The low entry barriers do mean though that one has to be careful, when selecting a strategic advisor, to ensure that advisor has the right balance of strategic skill and situational knowledge to be able to address the particular issues that you seek to address. There are no professional requirements for calling oneself a ‘strategist.’ Some professional organisations and societies have emerged in the field of strategy, but these have been largely abandoned by businesspeople interested in strategy, the practitioners, and are now largely dominated by academia. So clients are left to assessing the reputation of the individual or the firm to which s/he is affiliated.
Over the course of these posts, I intend unpacking the strategist’s toolbox and exploring the personalities that developed the various tools, methods and, in some cases, simply ideas or principles. By the end of it, my hope is that you will be able to work out which of these you need in order to set and execute strategy in your own firm, and balance that strong sense of direction that comes from a well-articulated strategy with the agility that is needed to switch direction when ‘life happens.’ Also to be able not only to better align with the current needs of your most important clients but also to, with those clients, co-create solutions to their emerging needs and enhance their experience of your firm, to keep them as clients for as long as possible. We’ll also explore the role of technology in setting and executing good strategy, and how best to keep your people engaged and productive – especially in this world where the way we work has been so massively disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Please join me on this journey. I hope that you find it both fascinating and valuable