Strategy and operations aren’t the same thing

Here’s a story from a couple of years ago. I was talking to a guy I used to work with, and he had just come back from a conference related to his company. The conference had one of those motivational speakers who also has a consulting firm and, beforehand, senior executives at the company had asked employees to read one of his books. Then, there were discussions on the book before the conference. It all got a little bit heated in parts, as you might expect — for example, the book talked a lot about transparency and managing down as opposed to managing up (spending more time with people that report TO you, instead of those you REPORT TO). As you might imagine, none of the senior leaders were really doing that; people are notoriously bad at managing any relationship except the one that insures their own ass survival (i.e. the one above them).

A couple of brash employees had called out the senior guys on the inconsistencies in the book, and things had been awkward, etc.

I’m sitting having lunch with this guy and he starts to lose it a little bit. This senior management team, always running around meeting with each other… (voice rising) … so you got the goddamn director level running the company without any context … (eyes shifting) … and now we’re reading these books talking about transparency and all that… 

I think about that lunch sometimes and then I see quotes like this, in Graham Kenny articles in Harvard Business Review:

Tap your stakeholders. If your company’s two-day offsite involves a group of senior executives getting together to develop a strategic plan, and they do so right there and then, my guess is it’s not a strategic plan at all. It’s an operational plan. Your management team is most likely looking inside-out, and it surely doesn’t have all the answers. It probably hasn’t even asked the right questions.

The overall article is about how customers know more than managers, which is admittedly true: customers are the people you’re chasing to buy the stuff to make you the money. Managers make decisions based on internal politics and culture; they don’t frequently make decisions off the end consumer goal (when they do, i.e. Apple, they make a lot of money). This explains the “bad manager” stat people love to bring up (in part).

Beyond customers knowing more than managers, I always find this interesting:

  • Strategy, as a word and a concept, involves having a plan and looking a bit more long-term and thinking about different outcomes
  • Operations is essentially how you’re going to proceed with the strategy
  • Those are not the same thing.

Oftentimes, people talk about having “a strategy” when what they mean is “We have an operational plan going forward.”

I’d actually argue that very few companies have a strategy; they have a set of things they want to do in that quarter. Because a lot of first-world business is quarterly-driven, it’s hard to think about 5-10 year plans. Hell, people can’t focus for more than four minutes; you think thinking about five years hence will work out well? Good companies do it, but even having a strategy means you need to be nimble (great buzzword). You can’t just set a strategy and then try to roll with it for months/years. Things will change.

One story to wrap this up: that same lunch companion from above goes on another rant at a different lunch, and this time he’s talking about how every corporate retreat and benchmarking session and “organizational health” meeting all involve the same seven people (the senior leadership team), and honestly, how can you be sure benchmarks are being met and organizational health is strong if the only conversations ever occur with the same in-group? I loved this dude for his rants, many of which were true.

To sum up, then:

  • Operations is not strategy.
  • Consumers probably are better gauges of a product and certain successes than managers at the org are.
  • If every meeting about your org’s future only involves the senior-most people, that’s probably a fool’s errand.


Ted Bauer

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