Need a strategy? Let them grow like weeds in the garden29 June 2018
Hothouse Dick sitting among the weeds, photo by HM
Searching for a strategy? Here’s how to get one, according to just about every book and article on the subject. I have stylized this a wee bit, in what I call the “Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation.”
The Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation
1. There is one prime strategist, and that person is the chief executive officer—the planter of all strategies. Other managers may fertilize, while consultants can offer advice (sometimes even the strategy itself—but don’t tell anybody).
2. The planners analyze the appropriate data so that the CEO can formulate the strategy through a carefully controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse.
3. The strategy comes out of this process immaculately conceived, then to be made formally explicit, much as ripe tomatoes are picked and sent to market.
4. This explicit strategy is then implemented, which includes developing necessary budgets as well as designing the appropriate structure. (If the strategy fails, ''Implementation'' must be blamed, namely those dumbbells who were not smart enough to implement the CEO’s brilliant strategy. But if these dumbbells are smart, they will ask: “Why, if you are so smart, didn’t you formulate a strategy that we dumbbells were capable of implementing?” You see, every failure of implementation is also a failure of formulation.)
5. Hence, to manage this process is to plant the strategy carefully and watch over it as it grows on schedule, so that the market can beat a path to the produce.1
Wait, don’t go off and start formulating your strategy quite yet. Read the next model first.
A grassroots model of strategy formation
1. Strategies grow initially like weeds in a garden; they don’t need to be cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse. They can form, rather than having to be formulated, as decisions and actions taken one-by-one amalgamate into a consistent pattern. In other words, strategies can emerge, gradually, through a process of learning. The hothouse, if needed, can come later.
2. These strategies can take root in all kinds of strange places, wherever people have the capacity to learn and the resources to support that capacity. Anybody in touch with an opportunity can come up with an idea that can evolve into a strategy. An engineer meets a customer and imagines a new product. No discussion, no planning: she just builds it. The seeds of a possible new strategy are planted. The point is that organizations cannot always plan where a strategy will begin, let alone plan the strategy itself. Accordingly, productive strategists build gardens in fertile ground, where all kinds of ideas can take root and the best of them can grow.
3. Individual ideas become organizational strategies when they pervade the organization. Other engineers see what she has done and follow suit. Then the salespeople get the idea. Next thing you know, the whole organization has a new strategy—a new pattern in its activities—which might even come as a surprise in the C suite. After all, weeds can proliferate and encompass a whole garden; then the conventional plants can look out of place. But what’s a weed but a plant that wasn’t expected. With a change of perspective, the emerging strategy can become what’s valued, much as Europeans enjoy salads of the leaves of dandelions, America’s most notorious weed.
4. This process of proliferation can sometimes be consciously managed. Once an emerging strategy is recognized as valuable, its proliferation can be managed the way plants are selectively propagated. This may be the time to build that hothouse: turn that emergent strategy into a deliberate strategy going forward.
5. There is a time to sow strategies and a time to reap them. Blurring the distinction between sowing and reaping can damage a garden—and an organization too. Managers have to appreciate when to exploit an established crop of strategies, and when to encourage new strains to replace them.
6. Hence, to manage this process is not to plan strategies, but to recognize their emergence and intervene when appropriate. A truly destructive weed, once noticed, is best uprooted immediately. But one that seems capable of bearing fruit is worth watching, in fact sometimes worth pretending not to notice, until it bears fruit or else withers. Then hothouses can be built around those that offer the hanging fruit, low or high.
OK, now you are all set for strategy, by forgetting the word, getting involved in the details, and doing a lot more learning than planning.
© Henry Mintzberg 2018. First posted, with some different text, on 23 October 2016. This version will appear in my forthcoming book Bedtime Stories for Managers. For considerably more on this, see the books Strategy Safari and Tracking Strategies.
1Aside from the work of Michael Porter, see Dick Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Neither author would, of course, quite subscribe to this characterization of their work, but both offer the best of the hothouse approach.