Strategies That Make a Difference

I have worked with over 100 enterprises, many large technology-based companies, quite a few government agencies, and many smaller entrepreneurial endeavors.  The large enterprises pose particular challenges.  This is due to the simple fact that they became large because of successful visions, strategies, and plans, and particularly determined execution.

My encounters with executives in these enterprises was typically driven by their concerns with experienced or anticipated value deficiencies.  They could see, or possibly had experienced, challenges from existing or new competitors, perhaps with new technologies and different value propositions.  They wanted my help to devise strategies and plans for countering these threats.

A central challenge was determining how these executives perceived their situations and alternative courses of action.  I wrote a couple of books, one an award winner, about how enterprises can deceive themselves and suffer from strategic delusions about who they are – now – and what options they realistically have.  A more recent book addressed how several well-known corporations presided over their own demise.

My experiences with government agencies presented several other challenges.  Money was seldom a particular challenge, nor was executive talent.  The overwhelming barrier to change was the status quo, with many political, economic, and social forces determined to not upset existing “rice bowls.”  There were typically strong forces articulating the importance of change, while systematically thwarting it.

The result is very talented people with substantial resources entertaining many inventive and possibly innovative ideas, but being stymied by the dreadnaught of the status quo.  Consequently, we published many research articles and well-received books, but actually informed and stimulated very little fundamental change in government.  In fact, most of our inventions became market innovations in non-governmental segments of the economy.

Pursuing the other side of the strategy coin, when does strategy advice tend to not make a difference?

  • When there are no “market forces” that make the status quo untenable.
  • When key stakeholders simply do not believe that change is needed.
  • When organizational policies and procedures limit the extent of changes.
  • When key stakeholders thwart initiatives that threaten their rice bowls.

I have worked with several companies where these hurdles prevented progress.  In contrast, all the government agencies with whom I have worked have strongly exhibited these phenomena.  Why is this the case and are there ways to mitigate these hurdles?  Let’s explore the possibilities.

What are the equivalent of market forces for a government agency?  Governments surely have competitors — economically, politically, and militarily.  It is often difficult, however, to think clearly about the nature of the competition.  If an adversary is investing in a new technological capability, for example, how will this affect our competition with this adversary?  Will their capabilities be faster, cheaper and perform better than ours?  Perhaps the answer depends on the competitive context.  How real and predictable is that context?

Does the government agency, e.g., defense, energy, homeland security, need to change to address these new capabilities?  Are the obsolete older capabilities mothballed or eliminated?  Does this free up resources – human and financial – to invest in the new capabilities?  If not, what is the source of new resources?  Or, does the resource pool have to continually increase to support ever-increasing layers of capabilities?

Do the policies and procedures of the government agency support sustaining existing entitlements rather than encouraging invention and innovation.  There are typically numerous government organizations, facilities, employees and a wealth of support contractors.  Unlike industry where capacities can be scaled up or down depending on market situations, government commitments tend to be sustained independent of projected needs for these capacities.

In the rare circumstances where significant redeployment of resources is widely acceptable, key stakeholders will do their best to thwart initiatives that threaten their rice bowls.  Investments in lobbying efforts to influence Congress can lead to trades of votes for sustainment of  threatened ice bowls.  Industry is not immune to such efforts, but they seldom dominate strategies, plans, and allocations of resources.

So, is strategic thinking and acting impossible for government agencies?  Strategic thinking is common and often quite insightful.  Strategic acting is quite rare due to the phenomena outlined above.  However, it is not impossible.  It requires very strong, determined leadership that can build coalitions across constituencies, protect needed resources, and sustain broad commitments to success.  These ingredients are also important in industry, but they are not as essential as in government.

Leave a Reply