Coffee lover and family man Björn Hassert is a passionate strategist, and has had the opportunity to immerse himself in the wonders of sustainable business strategy all over the world. But strategy doesn't have to be complex and woolly, Björn believes. So what does it involve? Read about it in this blog.
Want to skip ahead to the 10 building blocks of strategic thinking? Click here!
I like to grab life by its horns as it comes. However, even as the Glass-Half-Full person I normally am, I can´t unsee a dark cloud on the horizon when scrolling through the daily news. It doesn´t take a lot really to get stuck in the belief that the world is uncontrollably descending into a sorry state, with conventional political powerhouses, major religions and economic systems forced onto a collision course. Polarization, populism and fake news all seem to lie in ambush to accelerate and amplify an imminent collision.
However, stepping away a bit from the turmoil, let´s not forget media offer just one lens through which we can look at current affairs. History could present another perspective. To illustrate this point: reading up on the news during any of the numerous humanitarian, ecological and political crises of the past 150 years, my bewilderment and concern probably would have been similar to today´s. Is history bound to repeat itself then? Well, only if we let it! And that´s where strategy comes in.
I´m very much aware I could be stretching your imagination when trying to bridge the divide between discussing today´s global systemic stresses on the one hand and the rather abstract notion of ´Strategy´ on the other. Bear with me though, as the above mentioned change of perspective is just one example of the causal relationships that can exist between the two.
Now, before we get there, there´s a bit of a problem with strategy, that we should address first. Hand-on-heart, I´ll confess that, even after some twenty years of working in strategy roles and devouring strategic theories in library-sized portions, I still find myself a bit lost for words when asked to give a simple yet accurate definition of what strategy actually is. I´ve come to two helpful insights though.
Incomprehensible acronyms, be gone
First, life´s too much about emotions, change and complexity – it´s what makes it so very exciting, in my view – for it to ever let itself be squeezed into one-dimensional theories and static models. Trying to hide this intrinsic weakness by making strategy models ever more complex is nothing more than solving a problem by creating an even bigger one. Trying to hide this behind the ubiquitous veil of incomprehensible acronyms or great soundbites (´The Ten Commandments of a Great Strategy´) is a tactic I don´t think will ever work terribly well either.
Personally, I´d rather face the possibility that strategy may never be able to effectively guide Real Life in the Real World. That´s because strategy works its magic on a human scale, when it inspires and guides a community we form part of, one that we can relate to and understand. Strategy often struggles to make sense of larger-scale global systems, with their totally unpredictable dynamics and deeply intertwined relationships. I also don´t think there is a single, clearly defined global community we all belong to, and feel connected with. It´s why I´m not holding my breath for any of the world´s existing political, religious and economic systems to come up with an effective strategy for keeping dark clouds away from our collective horizon.
Strategy works its magic on a human scale, when it inspires and guides a community we form part of, one that we can relate to and understand.
Secondly, and on a distinctly more positive note, there´s Parov Stelar. In case you do not know him, I suggest you go and search for his song called ´The Sun´. Then let this in-between-the-lines strategy class drift into your ears:
I’m gonna follow the sun
Don’t stop, you got to move
Keep moving on, moving on
I’m never gonna stop
I imagine the artist wasn´t necessarily intending to do so, but he´s definitely called out some strategic cornerstones here, that I can personally relate to.
The dot on the horizon
First, I see the connection between strategy and the image of following the sun. When all is said and done, strategy is about placing (or shifting) your dot on the horizon. It´s why I find that far-sighted people can make great strategist.
Secondly, there´s this reference to perpetual motion. In a world of constant change, this inspires me to design strategies that can flexibly respond to change. Putting it in another way: to help people find the focus and build the resilience to bring their strategies to life.
Thirdly, I´m pretty big too on the idea of never stopping. That´s the way strategies work; depending on whether these underpin personal or professional Better Futures, strategies only stop when coroners or bankruptcy lawyers move in. Obviously, that´s not where you and I are going. So let´s just agree to never stop.
So, while strategy may give all it´s got to avoid being trapped into an accurate definition, yet run out of steam when it comes to clearing a linear and direct path to a Better Future on a global scale, it can most certainly outline the contours of this Better Future. Does Plato´s allegory of the cave ring a bell? Well, strategy can be like the fire inside the cave, which triggers the awareness that ´Where We Are Today´ is not necessarily `Where We Have To Be Tomorrow´.
don´t see strategy as the recipe, but rather as the shopping list. Strategy is not supposed to be the cookbook, nor is it the electricity or fire spark that lights up the stove. Think of strategy along the lines of it being the connecting tissue between these two critical actions
Further building upon this awareness, strategy can also offer powerful inspiration and guidance to cook up a storm. However, taking this culinary analogy one step further: don´t see strategy as the recipe, but rather as the shopping list. Strategy is not supposed to be the cookbook (that in many busy households ends up being little more than an accessory gathering dust on a shelf), nor is it the electricity or fire spark that lights up the stove. Think of strategy along the lines of it being the connecting tissue between these two critical actions; it´s the bit in the middle that inspires us to get going, and helps us turn our ambition into real-time actions. Great strategies achieve this by methodically combining a number of building blocks. Let´s break these down.
Ten building blocks of strategic thinking
1. Change your perspective
Have you ever seen one of the great Impressionist artworks? Monet, Renoir and Gauguin are just a few of the artist names that come to mind here. One thing that set this style apart from anything seen prior was the fact that the Impressionist painting conveyed a clear picture – but only to those prepared to step away from it. Folks nosediving into the canvas to discover the finest details end up being disappointed, as the near-sighted can only see a vast amount of seemingly random licks of paint. Looking at it from slightly further away, the broader picture emerges, and one can only imagine the exceptional balance between technique and creativity that must have gone into letting a structured image arise from seemingly unstructured elements. It´s what great strategists can learn from great artists: they help you change perspectives, and understand both the Bigger Picture and its defining components.
2. Understand your mission
Go on. Get out there and change the world! Yep: change it. Disrupt things, if need be. Because logic dictates that those things that put a dark cloud on the world´s horizon today simply can´t be the ones that will chase it away tomorrow. But aim to change the world by creating real impact within your own community and circles of control. Keep pushing so hard this eventually gets things moving on a grander scale.
3. Set your vision
Getting ready for a big mission starts with an even bigger vision. Stop reading this post and run away from your desk immediately: now´s the time to stand on the shoulders of Giants and see the Big Picture with your own eyes. Think Big. Dream Bigger. Be the biggest and boldest visionary ever. I´m talking here about the kind of stuff that put man on the moon back in the day.
4. Be compassionate
Rome wasn´t built in a day. Unavoidably, your focus will need to move back and forth between your dot on the horizon and that desk you just ran away from. Give yourself a break. You can´t change the world overnight.
5. Focus. Focus. Focus
Building on the previous component, you don´t even have to change the world overnight. Nor should you be trying 24/7, for that matter. Personally, I don´t think anyone should spend more than ten percent of their time out there in the Strat-o-sphere, working on their strategic goals. However, that´s on the strict condition this time-boxing of your strategy happens with the Focus battery fully charged and in good working order.
6. Flexibly deploy your plan B (And Then Your Plans C to Z)
We mogen niet vergeten dat Rome niet op één dag werd gebouwd en dat er vele wegen zijn die daarheen leiden. Dingen veranderen. Jij verandert. Zorg dus dat je plan B klaar is. Als ook dat niet werkt, kan je nog steeds gerust zijn: het Latijnse alfabet telt 26 letters.
7. Own It. Live It. Breathe It.
Those conventional global systems we talked about earlier on will not simply reinvent themselves one day. There will always be factors beyond our control, that should not be counted upon to simply make the dark cloud on the world´s horizon drift away. So, there you have it: it´s up to you and I. If the dark cloud gets in the way of your spot on your horizon, go out there and scare it away.
It´s why having a strategy in itself is great, but never good enough. It´s about you acting on your strategy, and bringing it to life. For that to happen, your strategy both inspires and feeds off your exceptional commitment and focus. You must own it, from beginning to end, in other words. Incidentally, you leveraging your strategy to drive the Better Future for your part of the world – your own human-scale community and your own parts of larger-scale systems- might just prove to be the most effective way to build momentum for global systems change.
8. Do it
I hope the strategy fundamentals sketched in this post will help you place your own dot on the horizon, and design effective strategies to get you there. Just remember, the proof is in the pudding: great strategies should be executed in an equally great manner. To make sure your strategy will make a meaningful impact, you´ll have to not just make strategy, but also do it. I personally take my inspiration from one of Sir Richard Branson´s books. And that´s just from the occasional glance at its front cover: ´Screw It, Let´s Do It´!
9. Keep moving
In a world of constant change, you got to keep moving. Forward, preferably, but if that´s not possible at this time, avoid Sitting Duck syndrome at any cost. Don´t just take my word for it. Put Parov´s The Sun on the loudest speaker in your house, so you really get this strategic mantra:
´Don’t stop, you got to move. Keep moving on, moving on.´
10. Keep pushing
What goes up, must come down. Resilience is about using this inevitable momentum to bounce back. If you´re into ancient history, dear old Seneca I suppose was pretty spot-on when concluding `There is no easy way from the earth to the stars´.
On a concluding note: if you´re not one to shy away from a soundbite, I hope you´ve already seen the contours of what one day might become your very own ´Ten Commandments of A Great Strategy´.
I really look forward to hearing your thoughts. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and share your views.