The best way to make sure a company not only keeps its edge over its competitors but also seizes new opportunities is by making the most of strategic agility. That is the argument of Yves Doz and co-author Mikko Kosonen, in their new book, Fast Strategy: How Strategic Agility Will Help You Stay Ahead of the Game.
Kosonen says he faced the challenges of strategic agility for years at Nokia as head of strategy and chief information officer. While there he became familiar with two dimensions of strategic agility, he says, namely strategic sensitivity – that is, the way in which an organisation views the world and whether it is open-minded and attentive enough to sense new opportunities and discontinuities – and secondly, resource fluidity that relates to whether companies can redeploy resources rapidly enough to quickly exploit emerging opportunities in a complex and fast-changing environment.
“I personally experienced how Nokia, as a leading company, gradually lost some of its strategic sensitivity and research fluidity as a result of successful growth,” says Kosonen. “In the early 1990s it won over Ericsson and Motorola because of its strategic agility. But then, over the years, some of these capabilities began to deteriorate and, when we tried to change, it became really difficult.”
Kosonen and Insead Professor of Strategy Yves Doz launched a study into strategic agility involving some 150 interviews with a dozen companies and focusing mainly on six high-tech incumbent firms – IBM, HP, Cisco, SAP, Intel and, of course, Nokia.
The work has “been a constant interplay between theoretical contributions – what I bring from the academic side – and what Nokia and these companies we researched…. bring from the practical side”, says Doz.
Among the main findings of the study: companies need to be agile and flexible, both in terms of their thinking and their organisational processes. This calls for specific leadership skills.
“What we’re arguing is that you need mental and cognitive agility, which we call strategic sensitivity, but basically be very open to the world, and very alert, and make sense of developing situations as they occur,” says Doz. “I think one of the critical changes is that it used to be that companies could do strategy as a periodic planning exercise and then go into implementing strategy for five to 10 years and then think again ‘what are we going to do next?’ or wait for a crisis to call their strategy into question. I think today’s very different.
“So you have this constant alertness, awareness of what’s going on around you, this constant mental sensitivity and agility, this constant questioning. At the same time that would remain completely useless unless you also have the ability to redeploy resources fast and that’s where we come into the fluidity of resources as a core capability. It encompasses the ability to invest, divest, to build businesses, provide infrastructure, to have new businesses up and running in a few days and also be able, if it doesn’t work, to withdraw at limited cost and do something else.”
Doz says there is a third key dimension to strategic agility – leadership unity or the collective commitments needed for top management teams to make courageous collective decisions, and to work together to get things done, rather than be pulled apart by the constant tensions of decentralisation and delegation of business units [or functions] on the one hand, and the search for unity of the organisation on the other.
“That’s probably, to me at least, the biggest finding and learning from our research, and certainly one of the main contributions from the book: this whole notion of leadership unity and its critical importance, and how companies really need to pay deep attention to the mechanisms that sustain leadership unity,” says Kosonen.
Nowadays, it is strategic integration that drives corporate value, says Kosonen, and that is “very difficult for most business leaders who are trained to be autonomous hero-leaders who are running their own fiefdoms and for CEOs who manage them on a one-to-one basis”. But if companies are to be able to thrive on integration, they need to work as a team.
“We need to create some form of collegiate responsibility at the top, where the top team is collectively responsible for adding value to what the collection of businesses within the company could achieve on their own,” says Doz.
“Fast strategy” does not just look at the political and organisational aspects of building teams, but also explores how leaders use emotions to energise teams. “Managers and researchers are focused on organisational and interpersonal levers,” says Doz, “and in some ways they tend to miss the emotional dimension of commitment. I think Nokia – probably because it was led by a team of young, very ambitious people – was a very emotionally energised organisation in the early 1990s when the growth in mobile phone exploded.”
The more successful you become, say the co-authors, the greater the risk of losing your strategic agility. “Your vision starts to become more and more tunnel-like,” says Kosonen. “You just repeat the success formula and your resources become trapped in different organisational silos, and then your leadership unity also starts deteriorating, everyone is busy with operational growth… There’s not the… collective responsibility and commitment for further developing the corporation.” That is a trap the authors hope business leaders will be able to avoid.
While “Fast strategy” explores mainly high-tech companies, the authors say strategic agility is also relevant to other industries. “It’s really amazing how widely our findings can be applied, and how applicable they are beyond the ICT (information and communication technology) industry,” says Kosonen, “because the same phenomenon that is taking place in the ICT industry is taking place elsewhere. Not only is the speed of change increasing, but the nature of change is also becoming more complex, more systemic, less predictable, [and] that’s where you need strategic agility most.” (The New York Times Syndicate)
Strategic agility to stay ahead of game