This eighths blog in this series on ‘What Strategy Is Not‘ concerns the role of tools in strategy making. The strategy literature contains a few hundred tools that managers can use to enhance their strategy – particularly 2×2 matrices are popular. Developed by strategy scholars, consultants and managers, such tools are an important contribution since they help making sense of strategy, talking about it and actually doing something about it. Thus, tools are very important for strategy.
When you read some strategy textbooks though, you may think that strategy is only or primarily about using the right tools in the right way. There’s one on virtually every page and most pages are spend on explaining them in some detail. I am not saying that this is what the authors of these textbooks would argue; it is just that you might get this impression when reading through these textbooks. This applies even more to toolbox books and toolbox websites such as mindtools.com or 12manage.com. These contain long lists of summaries of strategy tools including a description of how and when to use them and their limitations. As such, they could suggest that strategy is primarily a tool using exercise.
But tools are just tools. They can be useful and even indispensable (I am a great fan of them), but using them is never an end in itself. There should always be a good reason to use a tool.
However, when I look in practice, strategy sometimes seems mostly a tool using exercise. How many SWOT analyses are done mostly for the sake of doing a SWOT analysis? And how many mission and vision statements are written because that is what, presumably, any serious organization ought to do? Or how many yearly ‘strategy days’ or workshops are held where the board talks about the organization’s strategy? Doing all of this has become a habit in strategy and it seems almost mandatory now for any self-respecting organization. But to what end and is this really useful? It may be, but also here: it depends. Sometimes it may be better to stop using tools and start actually doing something rather than using more tools.
Strategy is also much more than just using tools. It requires using your imagination, creativity, and judgment; talking to other people and persuading them; listening and observing what happens around you; and trying things out, failing, and learning. While a great deal of this can be supported with tools, it also requires skills, courage, perseverance, and experience to do it and a productive process to actually make it happen. Furthermore, it also helps to have an overarching idea of what strategy is in the first place. Having almost finished this series on ‘What Strategy is Not’, future blogs will start exploring that question.