Thomas Powell, Professor of Strategy at Saïd Business School, has received the 2018 Best Article Award from California Management Review.
This award was given for his paper Strategy as Diligence: Putting Behavioral Strategy into Practice. The article, which was published by California Management Review in 2017, draws on behavioural research and strategy practice to present an approach Powell calls diligence-based strategy.
‘Strategy is complex and cognitively challenging, so strategists spend a lot of time analysing strategic options and coming up with great strategic plans,’ explained Powell. ‘But we often forget that the whole point is not to produce great plans but to produce great results. In most organisations there’s more than one plan or strategy that can do this. That’s what we call equifinality; there’s more than one path to the goal.’
Powell notes that many managers and directors approach business strategy as if it is purely intellectual, like a game of chess. ‘Business is a different kind of game,’ says Powell. ‘Unlike moving a chess piece, business strategies are hard to put into practice. You have to think about execution while you’re planning, not after you come up with a plan. That changes everything. In chess, planning is harder than executing; in business it’s the other way around.’
Powell believes that a better analogy for business strategy is mountain climbing – there’s more than one path to the top, and the hard part is climbing the mountain. Powell argues that instead of over-intellectualising strategic planning, companies should focus on mastering a small number of core activities that determine success or failure in their business – activities like developing new products and serving customers. Then they should use a ‘diligence-based’ programme for measuring and monitoring improvements in those basic activities. ‘It’s a bit like personal fitness,’ says Powell. ‘You could spend months researching exercise programmes, but in the end most of them will work if you actually do the exercise – and none of them will work if you don’t.’
According to Powell, ‘When implementation is hard, success depends less on chess-like mental virtuosity than on Everest-like diligence in executing a small number of fundamental activities that are familiar to everyone who plays the game. In allocating scarce top management attention, strategy executives should remember that firm performance does not come from clever choices but from relentless attention to the fundamental drivers of business success.’