Are You Confusing Strategy with Planning?

(By Roger Martin)

“So it’s not that kids who drop out of high school and become drug dealers lack a desire to succeed. Quite the contrary. Their desire is so great, in fact, that they risk their lives and liberty to fulfill it. But they take care to do something they can succeed at, not something for which they feel set up to fail — namely, the path followed by more-privileged kids.”

Most people agree that the two strongest human urges are survival and procreation, but there is very little consensus on the next most powerful. I believe it’s the need to succeed. Humans hate to fail — hate it more than almost anything else.

But what about all the people in the world who apparently have no drive for success — for instance, kids who choose to be drug dealers rather than get an education and “succeed”? I see a different explanation for such behavior. If you hate failure, you have a wonderful way of ensuring that you don’t experience it: Play the game you know you can win.

Think about it. On one hand, you can tackle a difficult challenge and face the prospect of failing. On the other, you can strive for a manageable goal and pretty much guarantee that you’ll achieve it. I would argue that most people systematically choose the second course of action.

So it’s not that kids who drop out of high school and become drug dealers lack a desire to succeed. Quite the contrary. Their desire is so great, in fact, that they risk their lives and liberty to fulfill it. But they take care to do something they can succeed at, not something for which they feel set up to fail — namely, the path followed by more-privileged kids.

The drive to succeed affects behavior in the corporate world as well. Each year every company engages in an elaborate dance around the budget. The managers responsible for meeting budget goals argue to their bosses that the targets should be set lower — competition is tough, the economy is slowing, the distribution channel is turbulent, and so on. I interviewed Jack Welch several years ago, and he rather hilariously described the process at GE.

Setting yourself up to succeed is a good idea in some contexts. But it’s usually a bad idea in strategy making. Instead of doing the difficult work of making a coherent set of choices to position themselves to win, most companies default to writing a strategic plan that lists a bunch of initiatives with associated financial projections.

The decision to default to planning instead of strategy is often not explicit. Rather, it just feels comfortable to slide in that direction.

Source: HBR

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