Rethinking the role of the strategist

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Article|McKinsey Quarterly

By Michael Birshan, Emma Gibbs, and Kurt Strovink

Strategic planning has been under assault for years. But good strategy is more important than ever. What does that mean for the strategist?

November 2014 | byMichael Birshan, Emma Gibbs, and Kurt StrovinkMany companies have an executive to guide their strategies. The discipline’s professionalization, which began in earnest in the 1980s as it evolved from the chief executive’s domain into a core corporate function, prompted the creation of heads of strategy, strategic-planning directors, and, more recently, chief strategy officers (CSOs). Who better than a professional strategist to help meet the big new uncertainties of the 21st century?

Yet today’s unpredictable environment is utterly incompatible with what, historically, has been one of the chief responsibilities of many strategists: leading the annual strategic-planning process. While nothing new, the weaknesses of traditional strategic planning—characterized by a lockstep march toward a series of deliverables and review meetings according to a rigid annual calendar—have been amplified by the importance of agility in a rapidly changing world.1

Strategists have responded by increasing the scope and complexity of their roles beyond planning. In a recent survey of nearly 350 senior strategists representing 25 industries from all parts of the globe, we found an extraordinary diversity of responsibilities (13 by our count). But running the planning process still loomed large, ranking second in priority on that list, even if many respondents said they would prefer to spend significantly less time on this part of their role.

There’s a way out of this box for chief strategists and other senior leaders, particularly CEOs, CFOs, and board members, whose roles are deeply intertwined with the formulation of strategy. The starting point should be thinking differently about what it means to develop great strategy: less time running the planning process and more time engaging broader groups inside and outside the company, going beyond templates and calendars, and mirroring the dynamism of the external environment.

But this isn’t enough. Achieving real impact today requires strategists to stretch beyond strategic planning to develop at least one of a few signature strengths. Several important facets of the strategist’s role emerged from our research, including reallocating corporate resources, building strategic capabilities at key places in the organization, identifying business-development opportunities, and generating proprietary insights on the basis of external forces at work and long-term market trends. A number of these roles are more appropriate for some strategists and organizations than for others. But the core notion of stretching and choosing is relevant for all.

Developing signature strengths

Four years ago, executives around the world told us their companies were creating, by their own admission, substandard strategies.2 Only 35 percent were generating strategies that passed more than three of ten tests we use for measuring the likelihood that a given strategy would beat the market. And many respondents blamed the ineffectiveness of the annual strategic-planning processes for the state of their companies’ strategies.3

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