Execs jump right to supposed “strategy,” confusing everyone

Just — virtue-signaling! — went to the Y on a Monday AM for some light cardio and listened to this podcast with Harvard professor Robert Livingston. As with 90% of podcasts, he is promoting a book. Now, it’s a good episode, and there are about seven-eight thought-provoking rabbit holes in there. How engaged you are will probably depend on your tolerance for “academic wokeness,” because there’s a lot of that — and if you’re a real-world KPI Kevin-type, you’re going to openly cringe 4–5 times. Anyway, if you like expanding your mind, I would listen.

Since Livingston is a POC professor at a major university and has written books, he gets a lot of diversity consulting gigs at big companies, as you’d imagine. In this episode, he talks about different acronyms for approaching diversity and having conflict focused on “tasks” instead of “people” — great advice, sadly often utopia — but one thing he says stood out to me as I sluggishly worked the elliptical:

“Oftentimes when I go into companies, the senior leaders want to jump right to strategy without understanding anything else.”

That’s basically work in a nutshell at a lot of places, and for a lot of reasons. I’ve written about strategy dozens of times on this blog, although I would hardly call myself “strategic” as far as business goes; this might be one of the better “strategy” posts.

The two inherent problems with “strategy”

  1. Most executives don’t know what it means, and what they’re actually describing is logistics or operations or task plans, not a strategy.
  2. It’s a word that makes you seem big-time and important and notable, almost a virtuous world in corporate-type circles, so it gets misused frequently in the name of trying to position yourself a certain way.

The issue of jumping right to strategy

You don’t necessarily understand what exactly you are doing or trying to do or trying to solve. You are just looking for a deck or road map, essentially; a deliverable. You are not actually advancing anything around the problem.

Let’s say you want to create a cool new dog-walking app. If you just went right to a “strategy” of X-revenue, Y-growth (which are really goals, not a strategy), you’d be missing quite a bit, including who has dogs, what time of day dogs are home by themselves, what situations dogs might need walking in, what other things pet owners might need, who might want to walk dogs, how to recruit the dog walkers, etc.

There’s a lot of steps before strategy.

If we’re talking about Livington’s diversity work specifically, it’s a little bit more complicated, but before strategy on diversity you need to know stuff like:

  • Who cares about this?
  • Why or why don’t they care?
  • Do executives care or is it just lip service?
  • How does it impact perception of the brand?
  • How does it impact the bottom line to be more diverse?
  • What are the current talent approaches to diversity?
  • Who else is out there and what are they saying?
  • Will we be perceived as “woke-washing” if we do this?

Again, there’s a lot of steps to understand and questions to ask before strategy.

But yet, we still jump to “What’s the strategy?”

Right, because it seems big, important, relevant, virtuous, managerial, and adult.

How do we fix this?

Aside from promoting people with self-awareness and the ability to think through problems? We don’t.

Work is not really about strategy. It’s also not about innovation, productivity, entrepreneurial approaches, or anything else we claim it to be about.

Here’s what work is really about:

  • Top levels: Money, incentives, perceptions of success or world-beating/world-building
  • Middle levels: Control, ability to have a good life for their family
  • Lower levels: A check, perhaps the chance to rise up someday

That’s it. “Strategy” is a word we apply, often incorrectly, because it makes us feel better about the cereal or widget we’re peddling to a bunch of people who would probably rather look at Instagram all day and Netflix all night. We jump to the world because it feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/work-with-me/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store