Right now, leaders across the globe are trying to figure out their strategy. A pandemic-scarred world that isn’t quite post-pandemic makes this extremely difficult. The landscape is volatile. Solutions seem to demand a complexity equal to the complexity of the environment. And the clues to what tomorrow will bring are ambiguous in nearly every way, making it hard to accurate predict of establish sound assumptions. Yet the biggest problem for leaders may ultimately be this: putting the word ‘business’ before the word strategy.
‘Business strategy’ is how most organizational leaders think about strategy. But strategy is really about much more, especially in a volatile environment. By definition, a strategy is “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major overall aim.” No doubt, a business plan that can succeed is a major aim. But it’s not actually what leaders want. What they want is success ongoing. In a shifting landscape, a strategy focused only on the immediate, and for that matter, focused only on the business, simply won’t get you there.
We may not always recognize it, but a successful business is a response to the environment in which it exists. When we build a business strategy, we base it on certain assumptions about the environment. To make those assumptions, we identify threats and plan responses. We perceive opportunities and calculate innovative ideas to capitalize on them. But historically, threats and opportunities and our assumptions about how to deal with both enjoyed a certain luxury of time. We had time to evaluate the threats and their risks, and time to decide how to avoid or leverage each. We counted on time to get our minds and arms around new conditions, and thereafter to build systems and formulas for taking advantage, implicitly assuming such conditions would last for a while. That kind of stability is hard to come by now. The volatility around our business assumptions today means we need to think long and hard about where we should anchor our strategies. Should it really be primarily in the business model, market, or metrics? What if instead our thoughts about strategy were preceded by a different word: Human.
The fact of the matter is that people are magnificent mitigators and innovators out of uncertainty – if we allow them to be. It’s worth considering then the models, the plans, even the roles that tend to limit human adaptability. When human strategy comes first – not eliminates, but ranks higher than business strategy, we not only raise the odds of humans tapping their true power, but also allow the business part of our strategies to flex, adapt, and move with the rhythms of a changing world. It should be obvious that the power of human strategy goes much deeper than strict business strategy. But to see how, consider three things that, especially since the arrival of COVID-19, leaders have said are key to their ability to thrive in uncertain times: culture, creativity, and leadership itself.
Culture has long been given lip service as important. For many, however, it took the pandemic pushing people out of the office and connected only in the digital sense to make starkly clear the importance of culture as a connector, even as a competitive advantage. The same has been true for creativity. Leaders are realizing that creativity, something they consistently rank as a vital organizational skill, can’t just be talked about, used occasionally, or sought only from a select few. In a shifting world, it needs to be cultivated as a daily practice. By everyone. Even how we, including leaders, think about leadership has changed, as the task of leading has undeniably outstripped any notion of any one person, no matter how heroic, leading in total. These shifts all share a common revelation: Rather than being abilities or responsibilities of the few, culture, creativity, and leadership are inherent strength of all humans, and to actually tap them to effect means those strengths have to be encouraged and enabled in all. You can’t structure and plan your way to success in these things. You have start with the actual human and build from there.
In our planning, our strategizing, and our daily actions, we’ve developed an unnatural tradition of narrowly slotting people into roles, levels, and limits. Leaders. Managers. Employees. Ideators, organizers, and doers. In the process, we’ve failed to cultivate environments where each of those things can rise to the moment and thrive in any person, any place, and in any time. In no small way, this happens because we allow process, goals, and metrics – operational details that have oddly become the core of how we think about strategy – to overshadow and subordinate the human ingredient. Let’s be clear: Human strategy is not an argument to get rid of process, goals, and metrics. It is instead about putting humans first, and in doing so, proactively pursuing adaptable, creative cultures of leadership – which is, in the end, the only reliable strategy in an uncertain world.
That popular definition of strategy as a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major overall aim, isn’t wrong. It’s simply that the ultimate aim must be maximizing human potential. And for that, we need to put ‘human’ squarely in our strategy.
Written by Larry Robertson.
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