Many people have mixed feelings about their organization's strategy, or about strategy in general. On the one hand, they find it important and feel they have to do something about it to make their organizations prepared for the future. On the other hand, they are also highly critical. They find strategy often too vague, impractical, artificial, unclear, uninspiring, hard to execute, or otherwise ineffective.
Based on all the critiques and developments that I have seen over the past twenty years or so, I can only draw one conclusion: that strategy needs to become much more grounded.
The term "grounded" has a variety of dictionary meanings, including being wise, sensible, down-to-earth, realistic, practical, stable and unpretentious:
- “mentally and emotionally stable; admirably sensible, realistic, and unpretentious” (Merriam-Webster)
- “someone who is grounded makes good decisions and does not say or do stupid things” (Cambridge Dictionary)
- “sensible and down-to-earth; having one’s feet on the ground” (dictionary.com)
- “based on evidence or good reasons” (Macmillan Dictionary)
When I use the term grounded, I refer to it in the broadest and most complete sense of all these meanings. This is not yet very precise, I’d like to first give you the overall sense of what it means that strategy is grounded. Details can follow later.
In addition to these general definitions, I therefore like to use a metaphor here to capture the essence of being grounded and the reason why strategy should be grounded. This metaphor is a tree. To survive a storm, a tree needs to be flexible and bend with the wind; otherwise it will break apart. However, a tree also needs firm roots that nourish it and that make sure that it does not get blown down by that same storm. Thus, a tree needs to be firmly grounded.
The same applies to strategy. It needs to be flexible so that it can respond to ever-changing circumstances. A rigid strategy won’t hold long, loses its relevance quickly and may become an important liability for the organization.
However, like a tree, strategy also needs to be firmly grounded so that it can serve as a reliable foundation for building and growing an organization and for keeping it standing in the challenging circumstances of a world in which continuous disruption has become the norm. Without a grounded strategy, the organization will float in any direction the wind blows.
The "storm" used in this metaphor does not only concern the changes in the organization’s environment, such as changing customer demands, competitors’ moves, or technological advancements. It also concerns the storm of ideas, concepts and "best" practices that are thrown at managers and executives by gurus and the popular business press every day. There are just so many of them.
Being able to withstand such storm and focus on what is really important with respect to strategy is a challenge. It requires a grounded attitude and approach to strategy—the kind of approach that all courses on this platform are based on.