Why Strategy Has Lost Its Mojo

This post appeared last Friday on the Strategic Management Bureau site as a “Strategic Snack“. You can follow the discussion on LinkedIn here

The Urban Dictionary gives three definitions for mojo:

  1. Self-confidence, self assuredness (especially in sexual advances or battle)
  2. Good luck fetish or charm to bolster confidence
  3. Ability to bounce back from a debilitating trauma

Last week (June 13) the Strategy Snack featured Harvard Business School’s Cynthia Montgomery suggestion that “we” have “backed strategy into a corner” and it needs to be “rebranded”, so that it can be seen as the “animating force of the organization”, “the energy that directs everything the organization does”. She talked about “the” leader as chief strategist making “very deliberate choices” about “what a business is and why it matters”. It was pretty clear that strategy has lost its mojo.

The question is; Why? Ever since the late 1950s, when the business schools were reformed on logical empiricist foundations along “scientific” lines, the purpose of management science has been to rationalize management practice. That is, to clarify, formalize and codify, and to make the whole activity tractable to logic and reason. The concept of strategy has been central to this effort. Back in the 1950s Kenneth Andrews and his colleagues at Harvard believed that the role of strategy was to transform an intuitive skill into a conscious one that could be learned in the classroom; they dismissed emergent strategy as “opportunism”. Western Chief Executive Officers seized upon the concept of corporate strategy with enthusiasm – “The very term stirs something within us. It evokes images of Napoleon or MacArthur masterfully turning the tide of battle with a bold vision. There is something masculine about it too – and high status” wrote Richard Pascale in his 1982 Fortune article, “Our Curious Addiction to Corporate Grand Strategy”.  The concept also suited the needs of corporate America at the time admirably – there were plenty of opportunities around in the 1950s and 60s and strategy proved to be an excellent tool for rationing scarce financial capital by weeding out the bad ones.

During the 1980s and 90s the rationalization of strategy continued. Academics like Michael Porter stressed the analytical aspects of the strategy process and paid little attention to the role of people in it. At the same time, the challenges facing American business were starting to change. Growth was fading, capital was readily available and the inability of strategy to inspire creativity and innovation in organizations was becoming clearer. A left wing rebellion against excessive formalization had appeared in the form of the leadership movement. Many practitioners felt that corporate strategy had become too mechanical and a tool for the exercise of power rather than a source of inspiration. They argued that people sought meaning in and resonated to compelling leadership narratives, not to strategic plans and that the non-rational components of cognition, like intuition, were essential to the creative process.

In her video clip Cynthia Montgomery was making an argument to the effect that strategy should try recapture the ground that it has ceded to leadership over the past three decades. This will be an uphill struggle. One thing that is clear is that there is no hope of success if strategic thinkers stick to their context-independent, logical empiricist foundations. They need to acknowledge that the “we” who have backed strategy into a corner are the management academics. The so-called rational-choice model, with its instrumental views of motivation, denies any role for the non-rational aspects of human cognition, including the interaction of mind and body. What is needed is a more ecological framework that reflects the latest findings from such diverse fields as anthropology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience; it will look at organizations as ecological processes rather than as just economic structures, and it will embrace the concept of an embodied mind that is acutely sensitive to its surroundings, physical and social, which play a powerful role in determining whether we can be creative or not. Only then can strategy hope to get its mojo back.

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