Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies, by Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper

Managers remain in thrall to bad ideas about how to run companies, learns Helga Drummond

April 23, 2015

Seeking an excuse to shut down all business schools? Then start with this book. Its first half is a depressing catalogue of firms ignoring even the most basic needs of its employees – like recognition and respect – while professing to pursue grand strategic designs. Hence the “strategy delusion”. If that is the best we can do in half a century of business education, we might as well shut up shop. No one is listening.

Managers, the authors believe, are listening to the wrong things. This is hardly the first time that business schools’ reverence for strategy has been challenged; the management theorist Henry Mintzberg has proposed something similar. The main difference is that Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper’s exposé is more detailed and more grounded in research than that of most other critics, albeit overly peppered with sentiments of the order of “gosh, isn’t this awful” and “truly shocking”.

The book’s second half vows to “solve” the strategy delusion via a customer-centric approach to producing goods and services. Again, the idea is not new. W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman (to mention the most prominent) have said the same. Yet none has offered such an elaborate, systematic approach.

But why do business schools attach such importance to strategy? The notion of strategy as a delusion is not novel, either. Some sociologists believe that organisations value its trappings – strategic planning, strategic human resources, strategic marketing – less for any instrumental purpose than for their symbolic value. In this view, elaborate information gathering, sophisticated analysis of options and all the other paraphernalia of strategic management are used to create the appearance of diligent management, and to signify control over uncertainty. In short: much ado about nothing.

Yet this book replaces one delusion with another. The customer-centric approach – with its notions of empowering employees, identifying key drivers for exerting extra energies, installing a “Chief Customer Officer” and equipping people with the right resources and skills – largely recycles mainstream MBA texts. It is old wine in a new bottle.

Moreover, successful business strategies have often been the simplest. Consider Michael Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer. His strategy could be condensed to “a penny here, a penny there”. The slogan for which his fledgling firm was known, “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny”, owed more to expedience than strategic vision. It enabled Marks to survive speaking little English – and to prosper. By peddling door to door, he developed a deep understanding of what poor people would buy. This is just what the authors advocate, in spirit. The difference is that they aim to systematise such tacit knowledge to serve the firm as a whole.

Whether their customers will buy remains to be seen. Peters and Waterman’s best-seller In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies offered similar prescriptions, while radiating optimism. Their deceptively simple ideas, moreover, moved some managers to at least try a few easy fixes. In contrast, despite an array of pre-publication endorsements, this serious book is unlikely to engage or inspire practising managers. Paradoxically, however, this need not preclude success; after all, making things seem hard is part of the delusion.

Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies

By Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper
Palgrave Macmillan, 192pp, £29.99
ISBN 9781137394675 and 4699 (e-book)
Published 15 January 2015

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