Dextrous strategic thinking: Integrate short term transformation with long term, sustainable growth
Updated: May 6
Unprecedented pressure from the external business environment is forcing corporations to contemplate both long and short term, substantive change. Internally, digitalisation is the primary focus of a leaders attention as the forces of competition drive impactful short-term decision making. Increasingly too, there is a necessity to ramp up the speed of change on all horizons as murmurs of long-term radical disruption are now emerging as impactful, short-term realities.
The Strategic Management Institute (SMI) is concerned however that too many opportunities for long term substantive growth are being buried by the short term focus on digitialisation.
The purpose of writing this paper is to highlight the problem that although essential, short term thinking is restraining the real value of corporate transformations which rely on the promise of what a future corporation in its entirety ‘could be’. The benefits of taking a long term perspective to a short-term need were illustrated within global, France based food and beverage producer Danone. Following the appointment of new CEO Emmanuel Faber in 2014, the Danone leadership team commenced a transformation journey that incorporated poor performance into a long term perspective of what Danone could be as they sought to reimagine the very core of the corporations being, its purpose. The result, (1) led to a change in outlook that would see Danone evolve from a static ‘food and beverage conglomerate’ into a dynamic (and focused) ‘family health and medical nutrition company that emphasized sustainable agriculture”.
The journey ultimately saw Danone jettison its nonaligned, non-nutrition related businesses such as biscuits and beer while reinvesting in a renewal of its now core, health focused operations. A key component of that renewal Anthony et al (2) observed was the formation of a new business unit called Nutricia. Supported substantially by a $17 billion acquisition this business unit today describes itself on its web site [ii] as a provider of “innovative nutritional solutions that positively impact the health of people with specific nutritional needs.” Nutricia now contributes up to 29% of Danone’s overall revenue. The reason that an appreciation of purpose made a difference is that it caused its focus to change from the management of a portfolio of independent business units to the optimisation of an integrated, corporate system. Although structured in four divisions, there exist many similarities and synergies that contribute to a far more cohesive and culturally aligned and integrated organisation than existed before Faber’s time. While there are a few, mostly supply chain related synergies between beer and biscuits for example, many more can be found in an integrated, health focused ecosystem.
The strategic framework supporting a purposeful, systems based organisation
Seeking the means to reflect the physical aspects of corporate strategy in one system, the Strategic Management Institute (SMI) developed a construct described as a fully integrated strategic management framework as a solution. Illustrated in Figure 1 the content that contributed to this high level summary of the framework is made up of a summation of strategy practices and theories that have evolved over the millennia.
Figure 1: A fully integrated strategic management flamework
Although the system commences with purpose, none of the hard wired practices referred to in the framework will be effective unless they are literally brought to life via a practice of deep, critical strategic thinking. Each of the four elements demonstrated in Figure 1 reflect various aspects of strategically focused leadership and management orientations, all of which require different modes of strategic thinking. Long term strategic direction for example is an outcome from growth oriented, creative, innovative, thinking; an orientation of entrepreneurship. In contrast, strategy implementation represents the way in which long term strategy is implemented in the short term; an orientation of stewardship. Ensuring each of the elements of strategy are aligned is an orientation of controllership. Senior leaders must learn to toggle between each of these elements of the system, and the associated behaviours to be effective strategy practitioners. This means they must exercise a great deal of dexterity and agility when engaged in decision making. The SMI refers to such a capability as an act of purpose driven, dextrous strategic thinking.
Purpose driven, dextrous strategic thinking
A description of the art of dextrous strategic thinking is evident in the SMI’s adaptation of Chandlers (1962) (3) observations (2020) (4) concerned with corporate structuring which suggests that “strategy follows purpose, structure follows strategy, systems follow structure and operations follow systems”. A statement of purpose followed by dextrous strategic thinking provides the foundation upon which strategic and transformational ambitions can be grounded and organisational structuring established. An example of a company that grounded its transformation strategy in a meaningful sense of purpose is Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk (Mayer, 2022). Similar in style to Danone’s revelation, Novo Nordisk’s revised definition of purpose saw its net profit increase by 10% in 2021, little more than “six months after reframing its purpose from ‘manufacturing insulin’ to ‘defeating diabetes’.” (5) It is though, not so much the articulation of a more meaningful purpose that counts. It is the added art of dextrous strategic thinking that makes the difference. In this paper the SMI proposes a purpose driven, dextrous approach to strategic thinking as an essential driver of transformational practices. The SMI describes dextrous strategic thinking as a practice that is “undertaken with purposeful, mental and physical agility encapsulated within an ethos of quickness, and grace”. The value of dextrous strategic thinking is its reliance on “a humanistic, creative, artful form of strategy practice that is enhanced by structured qualitative, quantitative analysis and a systemic approach to strategy practice” – consistent with that portrayed in Figure 1. Elements of a purpose driven dextrous strategic thinking regime are presented in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Purpose driven strategic thinking
To illustrate the value of purposeful, dextrous strategic thinking it is useful to compare the differences between purpose and strategy content at two corporate giants; global mining company BHP Limited (BHP) and Australian food and household retailer, Woolworths Limited (Woolworths). Each have made a head start in purpose oriented, dextrous driven organisational transformation programs described as follows.
Purpose and strategy at BHP and Woolworths
As a mature, commodity-oriented, global entity operating at scale BHP declared on its web site it is transforming from a miner of carbon heavy energy resources towards that of a balanced supplier of in demand, ecologically soft mineral resources. BHP’s declaration of its purpose driven strategy is based on an assertion that “the future is clear”. (6) The unwritten theme behind BHP’s confidence is a strategy of transformational change that essentially makes BHP bigger, faster, and better, albeit through the extraction of more ecologically friendly minerals. Enabling this transformation is a program of improving/greening its operating methods supported by a commitment to significant capital expenditure. BHP’s stated purpose reflects a dextrous attitude of mental and physical agility encapsulated within an ethos of quickness, and grace. It is “to bring people and resources together to build a better world.” (7) This is a significant change in outlook for BHP, its previous, far less artful interpretation of purpose was more like Danone’s original statement. That was “to create long-term shareholder value through the discovery, acquisition, development and marketing of natural resources. “ (8) BHP’s statement of purpose and associated strategy today is also in full accord with more recent interpretations of purpose which call for the accommodation of “the needs of people and the planet,” an outcome from substantive research conducted by The British Academy (2021). (9)
The degree of confidence BHP expresses lies in stark contrast to food and household products retailer Woolworths Ltd. Its stated purpose is described on its web site, [x] it portrays a perception of the future that is far less certain. Woolworths wraps all its uncertainties into its strategy which it says has “a connected and unified purpose at its heart”. That purpose is not unlike BHP’s in intent, it is to “create better experiences together for a better tomorrow”. The level of uncertainty though is not surprising, as a consumer facing business Woolworths is impacted by all the nuances of consumer buying technology, behaviour, and the growing diversity in societal norms. The future orientation of each is difficult to predict, especially the influences arising from social media. Woolworths faces multiple challenges as it attempts to maintain a status quo within a localised operating vortex of volatility, complexity, and ambiguity. Woolworths strategy recognises these uncertainties and has accordingly erected a shield around its corporate infrastructure through the formation of a virtual system within its group. At this stage the system is one of unification of its different divisions, later this may evolve into more of a food management eco-system but that is far from clear. Unlike BHP, the only certainty about the future for Woolworths is more uncertainty. Woolworths recent increase in its stake in data analytics company, Quantium is an acknowledgement of what is to come, but at this stage it seems to be more of a short term risk management strategy than anything else.
From an external assessment of Woolworths strategy and structure it can be concluded that the company is flagging the uncertainty that it faces. In this context, Woolworths can be congratulated for being honest with its stakeholders, not so much about what it is, but what it might become. In what would have been seen previously as a very brave move in the past, Woolworths is expressing a degree of self-doubt; a onetime taboo for any leader or leadership and definite sign of a corporation juggling fast moving influences with great dexterity. Ironically, the content of Woolworths strategy demonstrates a good grasp of strategic thinking meaning that the uncertainty expressed in its purpose is more about the fog of the future rather than a lack of control in the here and now. As to the use of purpose as a foundation for strategy, it can be said that Woolworths has many doors to the future that have not yet been opened.
Attributes of purpose driven, dextrous strategic thinking
Often an afterthought to the strategy formulation process, corporate purpose is rarely understood or appreciated by those who read them or by all other stakeholders to whom they are addressed. This shouldn’t be a problem in ‘normal’ times. These though are not normal times. It’s fair to say in fact that the very foundation of contemporary corporate infrastructure is balanced on the precipice of existential, generational, and transformational change. This view is confirmed and illustrated by the extent and impact of change associated with The British Academy’s doctrine of meeting “the needs of people and the planet” referred to previously. A foundation for corporate purpose points to the extent that emerging societal attitudes are forcing corporations to accept far greater responsibility for social, environmental, and sometimes political concerns.
Although many corporations have embarked on digitalisation strategies as a priority, there is very little certainty about how they will play out in the long term. On again, off again blockchain in the form of crypto currencies is an example of the uncertainty associated with a key platform of a ‘meta’, digital future. On the other hand, what was once seen as a technology that would evolve over some thirty years, quantum computing, is now expected to be operational in less than ten. All in all, these, and many other game changing influences on ‘normal’ contribute to an outlook that continues to demonstrate a world of expanding uncertainty rather than contraction. As illustrated at both BHP and Woolworths, strong commitments to future investments are not only substantial, they are also sunk. That is to say, there is no recovery of investments that have already been made. It is just as difficult to sell a hole in the ground as it is a second hand supply chain optimisation software. Each of the elements of the purpose driven dextrous strategic thinking philosophy illustrated in Figure 2 are discussed next.
Gracefully deploy skills of cooperation, collaboration, and a systemic approach to value realisation
Gracefulness can be likened to a form of movement that is smooth, relaxed, and attractive – an art form expressed as a dance or a conductor leading an orchestra. It is a form of behaviour that is difficult to do in strategy unless there is a framework to provide guidance. As discussed in previous White Papers issued by the SMI (10), an Integrated Value System (illustrated as Figure 3) provides such a framework. The system is based on a Strategic Architecture (illustrated in Figure 1 as a key construct making up a definition of Long Term Strategy) a construct that aligns Outside In market oriented aspects of strategy with Inside Out, resource based aspects.
From the outside in, a Dynamic Market System is made up of a Renewable Market Position which in turn is supported by of the activities associated with competitive differentiation (Differentiating Activities). From the Inside Out, a Core Competence Platform is made up of inimitable competencies that could include, brands, people, significant assets, and technology. These in turn are enabled via transforming, renewable activities
Figure 3: Integrated Value System
(Dynamic Capabilities). Once established as an accurate representation of corporate strategy, the leadership team is able to gracefully dance around this construct as it tweaks, refines and evolves strategy content as required. As an integrated system, insight into questions such as “What will be the effect of introducing a new product line on our capacity and points of differentiation?” are addressed through open dialogue, fearless challenge and honesty. The dextrous attributes of grace and speed are witnessed in an open, confident, and rapid approach to decision making.
Entrepreneurship: Align purpose with vision to balance long term strategy
Yes, it is useful to have a vision, it provides an expression of ambition and is used to engage support from stakeholders, to motivate them and to inspire them to contribute to the business openly and enthusiastically. Even the most sophisticated strategy practitioners miss the distinction though between long term strategy and a short term strategic ‘plan’, a distinction made clear in the framework depicted in Figure 1. Through a clear articulation of long term strategy, practitioners are challenged to appreciate the difference between what is possible as opposed to what is desirable. All too often strategy ends up as a wish list based on a description of a desired future state rather than a realistic assessment of a possible future state.
An example of overstated desire was witnessed in 2009 when Woolworths launched a ‘big-box’ hardware retail chain that was identical to the established Bunnings hardware retail chain owned by the Wesfarmers Limited conglomerate. Exhibiting a purpose to what seems to be to “compete head-to-head with (key competitor) Bunnings”, the Masters Home Improvement hardware chain as it was known reportedly lost more than $3 billion though its investment in the development of 63 stores across Australia. At the time of its conception the Woolworths boardroom was reportedly over-confident as a “certain arrogance had permeated the upper echelons of the company”. (11) In launching a program of growth that saw Masters open stores close to, or on the door step of major Bunnings outlets Masters apparently overlooked the need to convince consumers why they should visit them instead of their rivals. It could be concluded in fact that whilst the implementation of their short term plan to build and establish their stores worked, the detailed content concerned with differentiation that is a part of long term strategy needed to have been thought through in more detail; with greater dexterity.
Leadership: Match mental agility with resource constraints when coordinating strategic change
A natural inclination towards conservative judgement in the boardroom enforces a tendency to limit consequential change to that of adaptation over disruptive invention. As illustrated in Figure 3 organisations can be reasonably linked to living eco-systems. As such, they will adapt to change as a natural component of their lifelong trajectory. When limited to adaptation alone however, a capacity to invent and reinvent is limited. A lake for example, can never reinvent itself into an ocean – unless significant external forces create the circumstances for that to become a reality. Even then, it is still a case of adaptation over invention. In Figure 3 the illustration of a responsive/prosponsive change matrix demonstrates the dominant nature of adaptation over invention – only the top right quadrant is free of adaptive influences that can be achieved via (usually human made)
invention over adaptation once a deliberate disruption is brought into existence. Adaptation however is likely to be far less disruptive than a leaders attempt to deliberately invoke a disruptive change. When limited to adaptative change alone, a corporation can be expected to experience a loss of opportunity. Global gaming software entity Minecraft provides an example of the potential extent of loss through a lack Figure 4: Sponsive strategic change
of human centric invention, represented in the matrix as an act of deliberate disruption. As an outcome of years of prosponsive invention, Microsoft acquired Minecraft for USD $2.5 Billion in 2014. Now, in 2022, Minecraft boasts a purported sales volume of over 238 million copies and nearly 170 million monthly active users. Clearly, this business offers a greater potential for growth than would a national park, caravan park or entertainment park combined. None of this was realised however without a sizeable allocation of scarce resources, in this case knowledge and cash. Although many mergers and acquisitions fail, Microsoft claims its investment was well worth it. In making the decision to part with that amount of cash, a significant leap in mental agility was required by new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who demonstrated a commitment to his adapted version of his predecessor’s mission statement. The original version read: “building platforms that empower every person and organization on the planet to do more and achieve more”. (12)
An organisation residing in the quadrant defined as a state of inertia is unlikely to be overly resource rich. Ultimately, it will likely be finding it difficult to survive. To evolve away from inertia, that is to thrive, a corporation must prosponsively adapt to change or alternatively, prosponsively invent a change. An example of an organisation concerned with adaptation alone, and one that was forced to adopt a stance of Dynamic Adaptation is French company Eutelsat. Operating in a state of inertia with limited resources in its service offering Eutelsat was forced into acquiring loss making UK based OneWeb to stave off Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite service. SpaceX was making quite an impact on the market share of traditional, mostly Government owned satellite operators. As described by th Financial Times (13)“The deal involved an incumbent trying to stave off obsolescence by teaming up with a scrappy tech disrupter”. Backed by the French and UK governments both saw the space race as critical to the credibility of their national sovereignty. Clearly, Eutelsat was happily minding its own business in a state of inertia before the Elon Musk appeared in their back garden.
Stewardship: Express physical agility in resource deployment when implementing strategic change
Just as the chase for perpetual cost reduction (continuous improvement) became the new norm for strategic thinking up to the 2010’s so too has digitalisation become the substitute for strategic thinking in corporation 2020+. The problem though is that unlike the physical activities of restructuring, cost reduction, business process redesign and outsourcing, each activity could be quantified, qualified and for better or worse, authorised. Investments in new, technological forms of improvement, usually in the form of digital technology, are often more of a gamble than a certainty. This circumstance is illustrated by renowned ERP and CRM failures amounting to millions of dollars in some cases. Today, these management control systems are more certain bets than analytical software such as AI and the Internet of Everything. Although promising, the future is not certain and a commitment to ‘bet the farm’ on a digital future is laudable, but not always defendable. Compounding this issue, many large-scale investments in digital are often being approved on estimates of return on investment in the technology which is based on purely quantitative financial grounds. That is fair enough in part, overall, however, and as stated previously, transformations to digital can, and should be about corporate transformation as an entity, not just technology platforms. The essence of mental agility in this scenario is not to lose sight of the big picture. The framework too should be influential, as demonstrated in Figure 3, a solid Core Competence Platform is made much more effective when the other elements of the Integrated Value System are included in the analysis and decision making
Controllership: Exercise speed and dexterity when aligning strategy with operations
In his role as senior ‘Strategic Planner’ at Shell Plc Arie de Gues (14) successfully forged a link between the disciplines of organisational learning and strategy and by definition, organisational transformation as well as efficient and effective operations. The combination became a key feature of his success in the instigation of a higher order of strategic leadership within Shell in the 1980’s. In his 1988 Harvard Business Review article, de Gues expressed an opinion that promoted organisational learning as a key feature of good strategy suggesting that: “an ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only source of (a firm’s) sustainable competitive advantage”.
As a critical component of transformation and ongoing regeneration the fundamentals upon which de Gues’ underlying value proposition was based can now be redefined. That is to the extent that in addition to a learning capability acting as a contributor to adaptation (the enactment of responsive change), corporate specific knowledge must also be deployed to enable a systemic organisational learning. The latter providing the basis upon which a capacity for invention is enabled and the enactment of prosponsive change delivered. The notion of learning in the context of an organisational capability is the opposite of most views applied to that function today. Rather than teaching individuals about leadership, strategy, accounting and so on alone, an organisation learning capability should also be about observing, interpreting, concluding, and capturing knowledge, as an outcome from the learned experiences of organisational members. Captured knowledge is the source of purposeful, mental and physical agility; the three key ingredients of dextrous strategic thinking. To this extent the SMI proposes that the organisational learning function and the strategy function is combined. To clarify, it’s not to say that individuals don’t need to engage in personal development programs. It is to say that what is discussed about the corporation in most development programs is the real nature of purposeful, corporate knowledge and that is what is most valuable to the future of the organisation. Consistent with the doctrine of dextrous strategic thinking too, the speed of learning is critical to the effectiveness of the learning function.
Conclusion and recommendations
In the same conference that Mayer referred to in his article cited previously, Jean-Christophe Flatin, President of the Innovation, Science, Technology & Mars Edge, a division of global food (and chocolate) manufacturer Mars Inc. espoused the virtue of an altruistic purpose statement that has benefitted Mars approach to business for more than 100 years. Mars culture, Flatin suggested embraces a philosophy first crafted by its founder, Forest Mars, Sr. who in 1947 declared “the objective of our businesses is to create mutual benefit for all stakeholders.” It is a concept that is embedded within Mars culture today – and another example of a purpose inspired philosophy that enables dextrous strategic thinking. At the heart of Mars stated objective are Five Principles. Each are considered independently before any major decision is made according to its web site. (15)
One way of testing an organisational purpose the SMI has learned is to find the answer to the question “What problem is this firm trying to solve on behalf of its customers”. As stated previously, the answer for BHP was “to bring people and resources together to build a better world”. The extent of BHP’s certainty about the future is demonstrated in its recent strategy announcement which commits some USD $10b to a seven-year capital expenditure program designed to deliver “the resources the world needs to develop and decarbonise”. (16) On its web site BHP proclaims it is proud to manage “a portfolio of world class assets with exposure to highly attractive commodities which benefit from the mega-trends playing out in the world around us”. Given its size, momentum and competence in mining BHP is highly competitive in global markets.
Woolworths on the other hand is prepared to share with the public its six strategic priorities, but not a definitive strategy per se. Even then, the priorities are tentative in the sense that they propose to reimagine, activate, and evolve rather than invest, develop and grow as BHP does. In F21, according to Woolworths annual report, (17) the company notes its six key strategic priorities reflect the Group’s transformation into a “a more focused food and everyday needs ecosystem by building partnerships and delivering adjacent services for our customers”. Although not stated nor necessarily recognised by the Woolworths leadership team the group could be heading towards the establishment of food or maybe household goods based Corporate Collaborative System. This is a construct that the Strategic Management Institute (SMI) has discussed in detail in a previous white paper where it demonstrated how the underlying philosophy of collaboration was grounded in the spirit of sharing. Titled “Inventing Future Corporation: A Corporate Collaborative System” (18) the SMI paper defines such a system as “a collaboration of transaction processing entities that deploy platform-based services capable of hosting many and large commercial networks”. Woolworths has started the ball rolling with the evolution of its collaboration-based ecosystem through the formation of a series of partnerships, acquisitions, and investments in organic growth.
Arch competitor to Woolworths, Coles Limited (Coles) faces an identical future to Woolworths. It has grounded its strategy in a purpose they describe as ‘to sustainably feed all Australians to help them lead healthier, happier lives'. (19) Although this strategy appears to be quite simple, there is potentially much more to it than meets the eye. The purpose espoused by Coles implies an orientation towards participation in a health system as opposed to Woolworths orientation towards participating in a household food and goods system. The good news? These two retailers that have been a mirror image of each other for years may have finally found ways to differentiate and to carve independent pathways to the future.
For everyone else, and probably them too, there is too much uncertainty in the present time to make decisive decisions about the future. This observation however encapsulates the reason for writing this White Paper. The future is impossible to predict with any accuracy so decisions taken today should be made with caution as must investments and indeed, entire transformational change agendas. It is the SMI’s fear though, that too much emphasis is placed on digital transformation when the opportunity to excel and evolve into Corporation 2040 and even 2050 demands more. Regrettably it is not acceptable to express too much uncertainty, so a high degree of dexterity is required to masterfully orchestrate profound futures as an outcome from these extremely uncertain times. Much of that dexterity is required to be enacted in house and with the approval of the board. As BHP has observed there is a degree of certainty about some elements of the future. For all organisations other than BHP however the extent of uncertainty must be excruciating.
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