At the Heart of Strategy

by Kamran Rizvi

Kamran Rizvi came to Pakistan and pioneered the self-improvement and organisation development movement under the banner of KZR



Strategy is essentially a game plan that people execute, in any field of endeavor, whether in sports or in business, in order to win and achieve the overall aims of the enterprise.

What makes or breaks a strategy is people. Their capability, coupled with their motivation and confidence for performing assigned tasks, individually and collectively, in a challenging context, spells the difference between success and failure.

The centrality of individuals and teams in executing strategy effectively and efficiently has always been known. But this fact has often received lip-service in the past, because top-lines and bottom-lines were being achieved without much investment in training and development of people. Focus was mainly on technical knowhow and basic skills needed to achieve routine tasks. Such short-termism has stifled human potential and growth of organizations and institutions. Most public-sector organizations like OGDCL are hemorrhaging through neglect, inefficiencies, and lack of accountability.

Thankfully, apathy is slowly transforming into a cogent realization that people matter. They must not only be trained to meet current needs, but also be developed to address future challenges if organizations are to sustain growth over the long haul.

To this end, the role of HR is finally coming into prominence. From being purely a support function, concerned mostly with administrative matters like employment contracts, payroll etc., HR today is playing a key role in providing valuable inputs to leadership teams at the helm of organizations for strategy formulation and its execution.

HR managers are increasingly seen as organization development (OD) professionals who closely partner with line functionaries. This is to ensure that the requisite leadership and managerial capabilities are present at all levels to meet challenging goals across the length and breadth of the organization.

While this broader scope of OD & HR has gained currency in Pakistan’s corporate landscape, the requisite capability needs to be developed amongst many of the practitioners.

The ambient national culture for learning and growth is nascent. However, there are a few inspiring examples of individuals and organizations that are making significant investments to grow and leverage talent. Amongst local organizations, Engro Corp, ICI Pakistan, Descon Engineering, PTCL and KE are glaring examples. At long last, buzzwords like empowerment, leadership, and candor are coming to life. Leading organizations in major industries like telcos (Telenor, Mobilink/Warid, Ufone), energy (United Energy, OMV, OPPL), FMCGs (Unilever, CCI, Dalda, Pepsico), banking (Faysal, Standard Chartered), pharmaceuticals (GSK, Getz), automotive (Indus Motors, Suzuki Motors) and others are clearly embracing the idea of employee engagement and leadership development, despite the odds.

At the heart of strategy, lies corporate culture, a nebulous term that few have managed to nurture and leverage. Peter Drucker once emphasized that “Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.” I found the following passage in an article posted on the Relational Dynamics website , which describes how this idea was popularized in 2006 by Mark Fields, president of Ford Motor Company.

“[The quote, ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast’] continues to hang in the company’s War Room. As the Leader of Ford, Mark was keenly aware that no matter how far reaching his vision or how brilliant his strategy, neither would be realized if not supported by the culture. Realizing that culture is an outgrowth of leadership and could be changed, culture became job # 1 for Mark. He was aware that culture was the sum total of what people at Ford believed and valued and that together they would shape their norms of behavior and ultimately determine how things got done. His task was to replace a culture often characterized by bitterness, distrust, fear, and with the projected layoff of 30,000 employees, a sense of betrayal with one characterized by creativity, innovation, and a sense of responsibility for the entire organization. One look at Ford in 2010, and the rest is history. What Ford did is not magic. You too can crack the Culture Code by Design.”

The so-called ‘Merger of Equals’ between Daimler and Chrysler that took place in the late 90s, failed miserably. Synergies were visible on the drawing board, but the cultural dynamics were ignored.  Dislike and distrust between the German and American counterparts were profound. The clash of cultures between these two automotive giants is well-described in a paper by Tuck School of Business in Dartmouth.

Speaking of corporate culture, our subcontinent has more than its fair share of brainy but gutless managers, whether in government, in the not-for-profit segment or in the commercial sector. Power distance and reverence of authority is very pronounced. Personality-centered leadership often takes precedence. Individuals are idolized, while principles often get sacrificed in the name of expedience. Consequently, an attitude of compliance permeates the very fiber of large corporations, with little regard to principles of transparency and accountability enshrined in codes of corporate governance. In such a climate characterized by fear and personal loyalties, status quo remains unchallenged. People in high office, defer reverentially to authority. Such hypocritical silence is a global phenomenon. It is far more pronounced in the lesser-developed and developing countries. Pakistan is no exception to this malaise.

In such a debilitating environment it is all the more remarkable to witness the precious few organizations challenging the shackles of the past by adopting ways of managing and leading that get the best out of people.

We urgently need to encourage independence of thought in our managers. They not only need to think rationally, but also intuitively. We are living in a fast changing world where we need to be comfortable with ambiguity and have the ability to lead without authority. This becomes all the more necessary if we are to achieve a high performance culture that supports executions of plans and bold strategies.

Dynamic socio-political and market conditions present us with a multitude of possibilities that need our consideration. In such situations rational thinking is of limited value, as information needed to make strategic choices is hardly ever available.

“Great champions need great enemies.” Says Garry Kasparov – former world chess champion in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review (Article is titled ‘Strategic Intensity’ – HBR – April 2005). In keeping with this thought Coke has Pepsi to thank. Steve Jobs is indebted to Bill Gates, and, at last, the West and Japan have China and India to contend with. Challenges posed by competition call for strategic responses from corporations and nations alike.

Garry maintains that chess is a good metaphor for business strategy. There is plenty of uncertainty and abundance of strategic choices in the game of chess. Garry states that just after three opening moves by a chess player, more than nine million possibilities open up, and that’s when only two players are involved in a game. Now imagine all the choices that open up to companies with a whole host of corporations responding to their new strategies, pricing, products and services. The number of variables is mind-boggling!

In light of the immense imponderables when venturing into the future, intuition becomes the defining quality in a great strategist. The competitive nature of business in a dynamic environment poses mathematically infinite options to choose from. According to Garry, the total number of possible different moves in a single game of chess is more than the number of seconds that have elapsed since the big bang created the universe! However, managers often view the game of chess as a limited board game with 64 squares and 32 pieces. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The need to rethink corporate strategy is acute. If a world-class legend like Garry Kasparov can think no more than 15 moves in advance, and that’s about as far as any human is known to have gone, where would our thinkers, planners, leaders and CEOs, stand?

Inevitably you reach a point when you have to navigate by using your imagination and feelings rather than relying solely on your intellect. And this proposition is hard to swallow for most of our corporate leaders who have forever relied on number crunching, often falling into the trap of projecting the past into the future, using incremental logic.

Using logic and analytical thinking in dealing with the future is much like driving a car in reverse gear. Strategic thinking is about the future – a domain of fiction, of imagination, of uncertainty, of possibilities, of probabilities – where the stakes are high and risks abundant. On the other hand, facts, logic and certainty sit comfortably in the past.

Our past is a data bank of wisdom and inspiration, if only we learn from it – be it recent history or a journey of five millennia. Think of a grand banquet – a place where greatest minds of the world have gathered for your benefit. They remain exclusively available to you, at your convenience and for as long as you desire. They share of their time openly and keep no secrets from you. They give you their undivided attention and demand only your time to the extent you desire to give. They share their mistakes and their achievements so that you may learn from their wealth of experiences. They pass on to you what strategies worked for them so that you may adapt their moves to your current situation and derive maximum benefit. Such a place is a library and one can build one at next to no cost. How many managers have a habit of reading books in our country? You don’t have to look far…few do. However, the trend is slowly changing.

Strategic thinking requires that we furnish our minds with distilled wisdom from the past and learn from current best practices being applied by leading corporations. We also need to flex our creative faculties to produce ideas of value.

At the heart of strategy is the need to consciously break away from the comfort of bad habits. For example, we tend to keep on repeating what worked in the past and want to continue in the same way into the future. Just look at the recent transitions. See how managers resisted introduction of new technology almost three decades ago. The move from electric typewriters to word-processing to touch screens, to smart phones, to ERP is a glaring example – the shift was a strategic imperative, but generally people paid lip service to the idea till it became vital for survival.

I was shocked to see that nearly two decade ago, organizations like PIDC (Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation) and SBP (State Bank of Pakistan), were using typewriters, carbon papers, telex machines and other such outdated tools. Thankfully, all this has changed at SBP since Mr Ishrat Hussain took charge as governor and commenced a massive strategy for change with encouragement of new mindsets and infusion of new talent. Such a courageous move on his part involved large investment in relevant technology, processes and people. The interventions have been quite effective as is borne out by SBP’s key stakeholders. SBP’s example supports what Garry Kasparov asserts, “Often, your guts will serve you better than your brains.”

New times require new thinking. This has become a cliché and hence redundant for the unimaginative and the risk averse executives. The good news is that the innovative leaders are using new thinking to carve heroic paths while triumphantly marching into the future.

A few years ago, on a flight from Karachi to Islamabad, I met a Malaysian gentleman traveling with a delegation to meet with Mr Shaukat Aziz, the then prime minister of Pakistan. I took the opportunity of asking him how Malaysia had transformed as a nation in the last forty years. I thought he would start by singing praises of Mahathir Mohammad. I was wrong! He immediately took me to the example of Tun Razak, the 2nd prime minister of Malaysia. He said that Tun Razak’s sincere efforts and clear strategy are an inspiring legacy even to this day. How Tun Razak set about transforming Malaysia makes a resounding case for human resource development and education. His story provides a useful example of the value of a clear sense of direction coming out of a strategy that everyone can relate to and willingly plays a part in its execution.

Back cover of the book, “First, Break all the Rules” by Marcus Buckingham says, “The greatest managers in the world seem to have little in common. They differ in sex, age and race. They employ vastly different styles and focus on different goals. Yet despite their differences, great managers share one common trait: they do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom.”

Successful organizations are distinguished by a corporate culture based on aiming high; a structure that is flexible and responsive; a strategy that is clear and focused and its flawless execution. What stands in the way of the flawless execution of clear strategies is management’s tendency to be over-confident and/or its struggle to maintain status quo.

We ignore corporate culture at our own peril.

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