The probably most common way to develop strategies is to ask (and hopefully answer) questions like: Which products do we want to offer? In which markets? How are we going to do that? Do we want to do that on our own or are we looking out for a partner? Such questions are necessary to guide a company on its way to the future. My experience is, however, that strategy efforts that centre around these questions often lead to results that are perceived as not satisfying. Even if a company successfully thinks about its products, its markets, its technologies or about whatever might be relevant for it, many people there may end up with the vague feeling that there is no real strategy at all.
In my understanding of strategy, such product or market strategies are already at a fairly detailed level of strategy making. What I consider to be the overall strategy of a business is much closer to the overall vision or mission (or however you want to call the overall objective for which the business exists) and to its culture. That does not even have to be formally articulated and labelled as strategy. It is about questions like how a company approaches and solves particular questions, how narrow or wide it defines its boarders, how it develops, how it searches for new opportunities and how it exploits them. These decisions don’t have to be taken formally; they may as well be deeply embedded in the companies collective experience and history.
Even if a company deliberately decides to have no strategy in the classical sense at all, for me this decision actually is the companies strategy. This company had decided not to limit itself through any statement, but to be totally open to whatever comes up.
One more example: I used to work with a major automotive and industrial supplier. This company was founded by two brilliant engineers and had grown to a global player and industry leader through the work of many more brilliant engineers. Even the top management team consisted almost exclusively of engineers. For this company it was the most natural thing
- to focus on activities that are closely related to its core businesses (i.e. that the engineers understand well)
- to closely watch trends in product technology and application technology
- to improve profitability by continuously optimising production processes and product designs
- and so on.
Seen from the outside, these traits are an important part of this companies strategy – in this case a quite successful one. But I never saw them written down in a strategy paper. When they talked about strategy they discussed how to enter the Chinese market or whether or not to invest in a particular technology ….