Tag Archives: strategy

Changing conversations: changing hearts and souls

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981

I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business. Continue reading

Strategy as politics

For those readers not from the UK, the story about the collapse of the not-for-profit Kids Company, an organisation set up to work with children and young people with complex needs in inner cities, may have passed them by. The organisation was founded by a very charismatic and telegenic psychotherapist 20 years ago who continued to be the organisation’s director. She became the darling of governments of all persuasions and seems to have been very successful at direct lobbying of senior ministers, and even the Prime Minister, for money and attention.

The organisation collapsed very dramatically and very suddenly despite the current government donating a £3 million grant, and on a weekly basis the newspapers carry stories of claim and counter-claim and mutual recrimination. These back and forth arguments resolve around the extent to which the organisation was or wasn’t well managed, did or didn’t produce good outcomes for children, had or hadn’t been audited properly, did or didn’t have an effective governing body. This post will focus on the struggle over the definition of what it means to be well managed, particularly with regard to strategy. Continue reading

Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics

New edition published this month: the revised, refreshed and updated version of Ralph’s textbook including sections on process organisation studies, new organisational examples, a bit more theory and more up-to-date references.stacey-and-mowles

The Archbishop and the CEO: reflecting on strategy and the courage to change

Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).

After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:

Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.

I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.

Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving. Continue reading

Pragmatism, vision and strategy

The pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty, who died last year of pancreatic cancer, took a critical view of scientific knowledge, particularly as it is used in relation to social interaction and ethics. For him, human relationships and their ethical implications were always emerging, never fixed. Taking the traditional pragmatic interest in language as the basis for the emergence of self and society, and at the risk of being dualistic he compared how it is used from the standpoint of those with a desire for objectivity and those with a desire for solidarity. Those who adopt the former position are ‘objectivists’, metaphysicians, who try to describe themselves in relation to a non-human reality, meanwhile the latter, committed to solidarity, like to tell their story of a contribution to a community. In the late 20th and early 21st century, Rorty argues:

We are the heirs to this objectivist tradition, which centres around the assumption that we must step outside our community long enough to examine it in the light of something which transcends it, namely, that which it has in common with every other actual and possible human community (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991: 22) Continue reading

Management as ideology

I recently served on an interview panel for a senior management post for a small not for profit. It was an interesting experience for encountering in condensed form how a sample of candidates, all with pretty good experience and qualifications for the job, understand the practice of management.

The first thing three of the five candidates picked up on is the fact that the organisation’s strategy document is not written conventionally. It does not have a vision, mission and values statement from which all work is understood to flow. Instead it sets out an overview of the work currently undertaken, has an assessment of some of the difficulties the staff have encountered in carrying out the work and goes on to set out some areas of future work, grouped under themes, which staff would like to find out more about over the next year. There are areas for concern, exploration and research, but no targets, no KPIs, and no performance indicators. The candidates were asked to review the strategy critically, and for three of them the strategy was inadequate if there was no vision, mission and values. How could you know where you were going if you didn’t set a direction? What was interesting about this for me was not so much their orthodox understanding of what a strategy should be, but their lack of curiosity. So one of the things they might be telling the interview panel is that if the organisation wants to be recognised in the community of other organisations also producing strategies, then it would need to produce a  document that looked similar to everyone else’s.  And it might be good advice. Continue reading

Being strategic – values, politics and power in organisations

I was struck in some work I am involved in at the moment how the phrase ‘being strategic’ is just as difficult a concept to unpick as is ‘living our values’ or ‘fulfilling our vision’. All these phrases appeal to universalities partly as justification for action but partly as a way of overriding dissent. So the idea of being strategic is the claim by managers that they have, as Norbert Elias put it, made a detour via detachment. They have tried to stand back from the day to day hurly-burly, and drawing on hindsight and foresight, have tried to develop a more reality-congruent way of working.

So in my current work, senior managers made a set of decisions that they then claimed were strategic. However, the decisions that they made were contested by different groups within the organisation who came up with different interpretations of what it might mean to be strategic. The dispute over what we mean when we say that something is strategic also involved the appeal to values. Senior managers claimed that their set of decisions would better suit the constituency the organisation was set up to serve: it made staff more accountable to this group of beneficiaries. Opponents of the decision argued that, to the contrary, if the senior managers had any understanding of what the organisation was set up to achieve, they would have made an entirely different set of decisions. Both groups appealed to the organisation’s values and mission in support of what they were arguing. The ensuing dispute became so heated that senior managers felt they needed a consultant to advise them on how to go forward. Continue reading

Caught up in anxiety IV

I have been worrying away, caught up in my own anxiety if you like, about the spatial metaphors that seem so common sense when we start to talk about strategy in groups. So how can we possibly move forward unless we work out where it is that we want to be? Unless we have a map with an intended destination how do we know what to do when different options present? When I go out of the door in the morning do I turn left or right, a decision which is only possible if I know where I am going?

These ways of conceptualising what we need to be doing when we contemplate strategy  are very powerful, and to be appearing to take a position that seems to want to destabilise imagining a new future together can be experienced by participants in a group as a complete violation of the obvious. I think participants can sometimes experience a strong bodily reaction of frustration and suppression. I witness this as people visibly shift in their seats, mutter semi-audibly and clearly struggle with what they consider is the prevention of the blindingly obvious. I experience their discomfort with what it is I am saying when I am suggesting an alternative to spatial and directional metaphors. This makes me, in my turn, uncomfortable because I realise we are starting to struggle with what we mean by what we say.

Why are the reactions so strong? (And as I write this I am finding it almost impossible not to use spatial metaphors myself).

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics from the University of Berkeley and has written extensively about how it is only possible for us to conceptualise  and rationalise, even in mathematics and physics, because we have developed metaphor. Moreover, the metaphors we use arise out of our bodily experience. As human bodies which have fronts and  backs we have a corporeal understanding of movement towards things and away from things. Quoting other research, Lakoff states that in most sign languages from around the world reference to the past  consistists  of a motion with the hands behind the signer. In addition, the metaphor of the journey is widely used to understand our lived experience – some of us conceive of our lives as a journey (and how many of us have done exercises in workshops where we are asked to describe our development in just such terms?), where we might lose our way or find ourselves at a crossroads, or not be sure which direction to take. We put the past behind us, we look forward to events. (An interesting exception to this is Aymara, a Chilean language of the Andes where it is the past which is ‘in front’ because you can immediately see the results of what you have done).

Because the metaphors we use to think about the future are embodied, rooted in our lived experience of the world, we may experience a bodily reaction to someone who appears to be cutting across our way of understanding the world and what it is we are engaged in. If I am encouraging a group to notice what is happening now, in the living present it may feel very counter-intuitive to what we ‘should be doing’. So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified in the future. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, when the dominant mode is based in will, intentionality, then the dominant tense tends to be the future tense.

So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified as a point in the future towards which we are travelling. Along the line of time between where we are now and where we want to be be there will be landmarks, milestones, which we can use to orient ourselves as to whether we are travelling in the right direction.

In arguing that metaphors are useful because they help us rationalise and conceptualise arising out of our bodily experience of the world, Lackoff also warns against taking metaphorical language literally. Rather than being a best guess, an imaginative exercise in the face of an unknowable future, where what is most important is the way we negotiate, agree and disagree, pay attention to the relationships which are forming, strategy can become a fixed plan with milestones and targets for which employees will be ‘held accountable’. By ignoring, or perhaps failing to appreciate  the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of what we are doing we fall into the trap of believing that can predict the future.  We pay more attention to what we are willing, rather than what we encounter when we proceed with intention.

More on emergence

In previous posts I have referred to the sociologist Norbert Elias who developed his own theory of social processes as ‘blind social forces’:


Again and again, therefore, people stand before the outcome of their own actions like the apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer in his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and formations of the historical flow which they themselves constitute but do not control. (The Society of Individuals, 1991: 62)


I have been developing an argument that the social processes Elias is pointing to come close to what I would understand as emergence. We are part of social processes in which we participate, but over which we exercise only partial control. In pursuing this line of enquiry further I want to draw on an academic who comes at the question of the link between intention and outcome from a completely different perspective, but who seems to me to draw similar conclusions.


Peter Hedström describes himself as an analytical sociologist. That is, he has by his own definition very little patience with theoretical sociology, because it seems to him too ‘imprecise’. He metes out particular criticism for one of my own favourites Pierre Bourdieu for offering explanations of social phenomena that mystify as much as they explain (Dissecting the Social, 2005: 4). Instead he has tried to explain social phenomena by simulating them mathematically using computer generated models. In so doing he is careful to outline the limitations of the particular approach he is taking. Although he feels that his approach offers helpful explanations of how social phenomena arise, he counsels against using them as empirical predictions, or as literal statements about empirical reality. However, in developing computer models to help explain patterns of unemployment among young people in different districts of metropolitan Stockholm, which involves making explicit quite precise assumptions about how people behave and running the simulation thousands of times to observe what happens, Hedström draws some interesting conclusions:


1                    There is no necessary proportionality between the size of a cause and the size of its effect.

2                    The structure of the social interaction is of considerable importance in its own right for the social outcomes that emerge.

3                    The effect a given action has on the social can be highly contingent upon the structural configuration in which the actor is embedded.

4                    Aggregate patterns say very little about the micro-level processes that brought them about. (2005: 99)


It is difficult to disaggregate these observations since Hedström intends them to be taken together, but in analysing the interaction of agents within a network he concludes that small variables can make a big difference to outcomes. While in one situation the actions of X might lead to Y, in another context where the power relationship between X and the network of agents they are related to are slightly different, an entirely different outcome is possible even if the same actions are pursued. Moreover, Hedström also admits that other factors, outside the field of scrutiny, can also have a big impact on outcomes between interactions. Social patterning arises in unpredictable ways even if we can identify many of the important factors, and in addition to this there are other factors that we cannot identify which may also influence the outcome. So rather than being linear and predictable, he concludes that the relationship between the individual and the social, the individual agent and multiple agents, is ‘complex and precarious’ where ‘large scale social phenomena that are observed may simply be due to an uncommon combination of common events and circumstances (Ibid.: 100).


The implications for staff in organisations developing a ‘global’ strategy that is to be taken up in lots of different contexts is that they can expect it to have very different effects in each of the contexts where staff are working. What actually happens as a result of their actions will be entirely dependent on their relationship with other actors in their context, how what they are trying to do is perceived by others, their relative power in relation to others, and their understanding of the strategy they are trying to pursue. There are also factors that Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as unknown unknowns, factors which, no matter how careful our analysis and planning we cannot know, and which may have profound consequences for what it is we are trying to achieve.