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‘Solving The Strategy Delusion' Explores the challenges of modern leadership :

Updated: Jun 16, 2018

Frank Dillon

It’s hard being a leader in the 21st century. We know that old-style command and control doesn’t work anymore but leaders are also failing across a whole spectrum of areas. That’s the delusion that the authors identify in this thoughtful book about leadership that helpfully suggests some alternative strategies they might better employ.

Cooper is a well-respected and high profile professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and was knighted by the Queen last year for services to social science. Stigter is a strategy consultant and senior fellow at Melbourne Graduate School of Business and Economics.

Together they identify six delusions. Change is the first. Leaders focus on holding onto incremental change rather than seeking disruptive new changes, the authors argue, using high profile cases to illustrate the point. Take Kodak’s strategy of clinging onto the film and camera business even after digital products had begun to reshape the market or Nokia’s continued focus on producing high quality hardware and underestimating the importance of software applications to smartphones.

In Nokia’s case, 50 per cent global market share domination in 2007 tanked to just 3 per cent within six years.

Planning is another delusion. Yes, it’s important to do it but annual planning workshops with the senior team are not the way to go. Breaking old habits of periodic and monopolised strategic planning isn’t enough though. It is obvious that change is constant but what is less obvious is that today’s change is often non-linear. It’s particularly complex in fact and can’t be led as it was in the past by hard logical evidence-based research.

The authors say that leaders also fail in the human resources stakes by not matching rhetoric with action.

Their research for the book reveals one common trait of leaders continuing to hold onto high performers who consistently fail to demonstrate desired behaviours. Engagement levels are shockingly poor with a high level of “active disengagement”, with some studies suggesting that only one in ten employees were truly mobilised. Customer focus is another delusion. It’s simply not possible to do from the inside out as most leaders do.

At a broader level, the book suggests that today’s leaders suffer by either holding onto or being overwhelmed by managing day-to-day operational complexities, often at the expense of realising distinctive strategies. A new definition of leadership is presented here in the form of “enabling and mobilising people who can, know and want to create and realise a preferred direction”.

Forget town-hall clarion calls for change.

They won’t work. What should, is creating an energy around a narrative that is co-created. This has two central pillars; customer-centricity and people-centricity. In the case of the former, it’s a matter of seeing the organisation as a customer would. Installing a chief customer officer sitting in the “C” suite is one practical suggestion that’s made. Some organisations have already pioneered this – most notably in the US – but they number just 35 within the Fortune 500 list. Even here the role might not be adequately understood. CCOs should not be lumbered with the task of maximising customer profitability. Rather, they should be employed to leverage joint value. Getting widespread employee engagement is vital too. It’s clear that you need to get a critical mass of adopters of new thinking for the rate of adoption to become self-sustaining and capable of producing fresh growth. The advice here is to focus on key influencers such as first-line managers.

We can’t expect this to happen, however, when a critical mass are not equipped with the right resources, skills and competencies to fulfil requirements at an individual, departmental or organisational level.

The phrase “Can-want-know” is an apt summary of what’s needed. Energy is a key word for the authors. One of the dangers of not doing things right is that the productive energy that leaders painfully co-create can easily flow elsewhere. Comfortable energy, corrosive energy or resigned inertia are all too easily created, it appears. Written concisely and in an engaging style, Cooper and Stigter have produced a very worthwhile book here on the challenges of modern leadership.

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