– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

Babies and Strategy

As you might remember, our team was completed by our baby last year. Our little daughter is now 14 months old and makes us very happy. Looking back at the time with her, I see some parallels between living with a baby and strategic management:

Let’s start with the time before the baby arrives. The expecting parents are more or less in-formed about their future challenges. By this time, most parents have a general idea of how they want to live with the baby, how they want to bring the baby up and what kind of person it should (hopefully) become. Most parents wish their baby to become a strong, self-confident and happy person. Hopefully it will be very intelligent and will outsmart its little friends in the toddler group. Nevertheless, many issues still are very vague to them and they need to figure out many details. But not all of these details need to be decided right now. Many issues can wait until these particular situations arise. It will be easier and wiser to solve these questions with the detailed knowledge of the real-life situation.

You can compare this stage with the pre-startup phase of a new business. In this stage, the expectant entrepreneur has a general idea of what kind of business he is going to start and what he wants to achieve with it; i.e. he has developed an overall vision of his business. However, many details of his business plan still need to be worked out.

Than, the baby finally arrives. The young parents find themselves more than busy in their day-to-day live with the baby. They find out that there are a lot of questions they never thought about before and that need to be solved immediately. By that time, they have proba-bly developed a more detailed idea of their relationship with their baby and their general principles of childcare.

This is comparable with the start-up phase of a business. Despite all advance planning, managers have to work out the businesses routines and processes in detail. They have to bring their strategy to life. It is more than likely that they encounter some problems in this process. As with a new baby, they will come across questions they had not thought about before, and some aspects of their well-thought strategy may already turn out unrealistic.

So far, there is nothing surprising in my parallel between living with a baby and business strategy. It is, however, my experience during the next couple of months with the baby that reminded me of an important aspect of strategy: During baby’s first year, parents develop some routine and self-confidence. They develop their ‘strategies’ for major aspects for live with their baby, e.g. how they will handle sleeping problems, or how they find the fine line between baby’s needs and their own needs. Everything could be fine, except for the fact that the baby does not remain unchanged in its needs, behavior and circadian rhythm. What worked well until yesterday may be totally contra productive today. Hence, parents have to adapt their ways of doing almost constantly. They have to keep their ‘strategy’ very flexible. Ideally, they have a strong overall vision of how they want to bring their child up. This can serve them as a guiding line. For instance, parents may have decided that it is not right to let the baby cry to sleep. When their baby changes its sleeping pattern, they will have to find a new way to bring it to sleep. They won’t however start a sleep training program because that would violate one of their fundamental principles.

You may easily guess that businesses can find themselves in very similar situations. Some external conditions change and what worked well until now will not be as beneficial any more. As young parents, companies have to keep their strategies flexible and adaptive. Their overall vision and mission may serve them as guiding line for their overall direction that they intend to follow, even with their adapted strategy. This is very much what Mintzberg and Waters describe in their model of intended and emergent strategies.

There is one big difference, however. The difference is the rate parents and managers real-ize that they have to change something and take appropriate actions. Babies have a very powerful tool to enforce their needs. This is their voice. When something is not longer fine for the baby, it will ultimately start crying. Few parents will not react to that crying immediately. For managers, the situation is more difficult. Internal or external changes that would require an adaption of strategy are not always that obvious. Often they develop slowly and unno-ticed. Thus managers lose valuable time for their reactions.

My moral of the story is that managers should keep in mind what young parents always know: Remain flexible within your overall (strategic) directions. Look out for early signs of changes. The quicker you react, the better your results and the lower the damage.

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