We can all envision those men with crew cuts and pocket protectors in their short sleeve white shirts chain smoking in mission control. They used slides rules and a 64K computer to plot and plan a specific linear trajectory to the moon and back. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took that first small step, NASA reached the apex of its glory. A difficult and complicated strategic plan had been executed.
The mission of the Star Ship Enterprise, on the other hand, was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” That split infinitive phrase was embedded in our generation’s culture, but it also suggested a lot about where strategic planning should evolve. Unlike the moon shot, the Star Ship Enterprise did not have a destination; it only had a mission. The moon shot was called a mission but it was really a noble goal: “to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” All of the systems and activities of NASA were designed to work backward from that that goal. The moon shot was a perfect application for conventional strategic planning.
But in the years that followed, NASA lost its way. It couldn’t create a compelling reason for funding and had to invent adhoc programs like Skylab and then the ambitious but troubled shuttle program. It stumbled from one poorly conceived strategic plan to the next. NASA desperately needed a strategy, not a strategic plan; a strategy that Captain Kirk himself could have embraced. But NASA was focused on the goal of one small step, while missing the overarching strategy which should have been “one giant leap.” The strategic purpose of NASA is space exploration and that strategic purpose will never be exhausted.
Let’s beam back to Captain Kirk for a moment. Captain Kirk’s mission was not to land on a specific planet; he actually had NASA’s broader mission of space exploration. “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” There is no destination in that mission. How do you create a strategic plan for that? If you think about it for a minute, businesses do not really have a destination. They want to increase profits for the shareholders perpetually if possible. It stands to reason, therefore, that they should have a constant, enduring and renewable mission. A strategic purpose that transcends businesses and defines the essence of the organization's existence as products and markets and businesses and competitors come and go.
Apollo 11 represented the best of a generation. Infinite optimism combined with linear planning to reach a clear destination. Star Trek imagined a more complicated non-linear universe. A multi-dimensional reality where you needed Mr. Spock’s Vulcan logic as much as you needed his human heart.
The starship enterprise had a strategic purpose. Its mission was constantly renewable, and all of its assets and systems were designed to support that mission. Likewise, the corporate enterprise should be designed to have no specific destination but a clear strategic purpose so that its mission is renewable and enduring.
But what is a strategic purpose. We can simplify and say that all businesses have as their strategic purpose to maximize profits. This would be a true statement; however, one that is totally unhelpful and unrelated to the idea of strategy. The idea of strategy in business competition is to do something different and better than anyone else. The combination of what you do and how you do it defines the business you are in and the source of your competitive advantage. Every decision the organization makes should be consistent with the definition of its business. Every system, activity, and process should be designed to reinforce the source of competitive advantage.
Every investment in assets, people, knowledge, and competencies should be an investment in that business and should serve to strengthen the competitive advantage.
When you have determined the strategic purpose, you can define the strategic core: what business you are in and the competitive advantage you can leverage. From the strategic core, you can build a business model wherein every activity and system reinforces the strategic advantage. The result is something greater than synergy; it creates a centripetal force that multiplies the strategic advantage exponentially.
What you also have is a strategic framework for executive decision-making. Abbreviated decision-making is one of the key advantages of having a strategy. If every decision had to go to the C-suite and be thoroughly contemplated, the organization would soon be paralyzed by analysis. But when the strategic core is defined, it is easy to put decisions through a two question qualification: is it consistent with our definition of the business we are in; and does it strengthen our competitive advantage?
But we cannot look only inward. Like Captain Kirk, we must explore new worlds and seek out market opportunities. How do we achieve strategic market positioning and navigate constantly changing markets on an ever evolving competitive landscape? You need a strategy that is constant in core purpose but at the same time, flexible and adaptive. It lets you know what core competencies to invest in that can be leveraged across markets. You need a strategy that is dynamic.
Now back to the bridge. There is no denying that what made the Star Ship Enterprise's mission possible were great advances in technology. Kirk had an intelligent dashboard at his fingertips from which he could control all aspects of the ship. Today, technology is also enabling businesses to manage from real-time data. The organization is evolving into the intelligent enterprise where the CEO, COO, and CFO can sit at the bridge like Kirk, Scotty, and Spoc and manage from a dashboard of real time information. Information technology is enabling dynamic strategy.
Information is power, however, uncontrolled power is chaos at best dangerous at worst. Without a strategy, IT-enabled business intelligence in the hands of ambitious executives is, to quote P.J. O’Rouke, "like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." As investments in ERP and CRM are beginning to produce usable business intelligence, a clear strategy becomes paramount for discipline in decision-making. When you correctly combine strategy, technology, and intelligence, however you can achieve dynamic strategy and boldly go where no organization has gone before.
Mark Towery is Managing Director of Geo Strategy Partners
Geo Strategy Partners focuses on market research and strategy for industrial and B2B markets.