The pros and cons of armchair strategy

When strategy is mentioned very often someone will argue that it’s something created separately from reality, a theoretical construct, and therefore of no use in the real world. This is often used to question the need for a strategy, or at least to try and minimize the boundaries or impact of a strategy. What is needed instead, goes the argument, is something tangible and real, something that can be put to use immediately.

strategy-300x199This criticism seems to stem from a commonly held view of the strategist as out of touch with the real world. The concept of the armchair strategist is indeed well known and often brought forward in discussions about strategy. In a recent piece on Medium Ron Bronson argued that Everyone wants a strategy, Nobody wants a strategist. He made the case for the experienced expert, well versed in tactics, to take the role as strategist. It is an interesting idea, not in the least because it might change the perception of the strategist as being removed from reality.

There are ample reasons to distrust the armchair strategist, working only with theoretical or assumed models, who insists that the map takes precedence over the terrain. We can find many examples from the military world, like the French General staff before WW1 that insisted on the offensive as the only means of strategy, replacing heavy artillery and machine guns with the concept of elan vitale – the fighting spirit that was supposed to conquer everything. The result was catastrophic.

However, what was practiced in this case was not strategic thinking. It was wishful thinking and a terrifying lack of proper analysis and research. In the world of communications today we can see the same kind of wishful thinking whenever someone insists that all companies must embrace social media or disappear. Only by totally ignoring facts and analysis can someone come up with such a sweeping generalization.

Before dismissing the concept of the armchair strategist altogether we need to look at the key element of strategy – it must be forward-looking and plot a course into the future. And in order to do this we are, to a degree, required to sit in our armchairs and analyze our industry, the competition, our own strengths and weaknesses and so on. This can’t be done while we are busy dealing with the now, making decisions based on what is happening right now. In a recent HBR piece Roger Martin explains Why smart people struggle with strategy – it’s because they are preoccupied with finding the one, correct answer whereas strategy is about creating scenarios and then deciding to explore one. I would argue that (being smart or not) many struggle with finding the time or the frame of mind to be able to analyze and reason in order to create scenarios.

In his book Good strategy, Bad strategy – the difference and why it matters Richard Rumelt tells the story of how Nvidia came to be a dominant player in 3-D graphics. One key strategic choice they made was to work with a faster development cycle, releasing an upgraded version every six months instead of the industry standard of every eighteen months. In order to do this Nvidia had to re-think everything from organization and work processes to test procedures and control of software drivers. Breaking with industry standards and understanding exactly how much of change within the company this will require is very hard to do if you do not take the time to analyze where you are and where you want to go.

I believe that the best strategists combine the hands-on experience of someone who understands what is happening in the real world with the ability to spend time in an armchair. Dismissing strategy as something invented behind a desk misses the point that to a large degree strategies has to be based on original thought and must question the commonly held wisdom of the day. One the other hand, one of the key elements of strategy is proper implantation and adaptation, and that only happens in the real world. Successful strategies may be born in an armchair, but they develop and live in the daily workings of an organization. As strategists we must do the same.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn in June, 2014

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