Cristian Mitreanu over at RedefiningStrategy.com writes a powerful piece in MIT Sloan about the failures of organisations to create effective corporate strategy. He traces the problem to interpretation of the word strategy itself:
The original meaning of the word derives from the Greek strategia, which is the ability to employ available resources to win a military conflict. This etymological heritage generates problems when the concept is used in a business context because it implies the existence, even the necessity, of opponents. As a result, in most managers’ minds, the notion of a corporate strategy implies a strong focus on competition. Since competition takes place almost exclusively at the offering level, most organizations concentrate their strategic efforts on constantly improving the goods and services they offer. This overemphasis on the temporary success of a given offering, however, can often obscure the kind of thinking and emphasis that would lead to sustained success. Even a continuous repetition of temporary successes does not equate to sustainable strategy. In an effort to increase the value of single offerings, the organization may be distracted from larger questions of structure, mission and opportunity.
Cristian's analysis is similar to some thinking about the problems of militaristic overtones in old logic marketing (campaigns, targets, response etc.) But he goes one step further in his discussion of the role of objectives:
Strategy has yet another martial connotation that can be detrimental in a business context. In war, objectives can often be clearly defined, and so strategy is thought of as a means to a specific end. This view has persisted in the corporate world where strategies are conceived as plans to accomplish specific goals. Although corporate strategy can be very goal-oriented, especially in the early stages of a company’s development, the very nature of goals implies temporary success. By contrast, sustainable success is not, and cannot be by definition, an end unto itself or a goal to achieve. That is, goal orientation becomes arguably inappropriate when success has to be indefinitely sustained.
His conclusion neatly brings the customer - and especially the continuous cultivation of a deep understanding of what customers value - back into the picture as to what strategy should be:
So how should strategy be, in a most literal sense, redefined? Clearly, it cannot rely too strongly on objectives nor can it focus too heavily on competition. A more fundamental concept is needed to guide an organization in seeing its big picture. And that concept is the customer. To create sustainable, long-term success, an organization must first and fundamentally understand and relate to its customers. It is the ongoing cultivation of that understanding — based neither on specific competitors nor temporal objectives — which must be at the heart of any real strategy. And it is that from which all objectives should naturally flow.
Unlike like most MIT Sloan pieces, you can read the full article here.