Steven's Blog

No More New Strategy Tools

In photography, new cameras do not make for better art, just as in strategy, new tools do not make for better business results.

Recently, at Yodobashi Camera’s Akihabara store in Tokyo, one of Japan’s major camera manufacturers was putting on a seminar touting the new features and functions of its latest camera. An audience of mostly men of a certain age had gathered, and were listening attentively, thinking they might improve their photographic prowess with more advanced gear—an idea that camera manufacturers want you to believe. However, cameras don’t take photographs. People do. The particular camera used does not matter.

Rather, it is a better eye, creativity, aesthetic sense, composition, and the ability to choose the right moment to release the shutter that count. These are all in the photographer, not the camera. At best, all a camera can do is get out of the photographer’s way. If you don’t believe me, think of any of the best photographs you have ever seen from earlier times. Whether hanging in a museum of art or gracing the pages of National Geographic, that photograph was taken with a camera that is inferior to the one you have right now.

Strategy is much the same. Think of the most successful businesses you know, present or past. None of them developed their strategies with any of the best tools you know of today, no matter how many books or case studies might attempt to retrofit business success into a framework.

Not so long ago, the strategy of one of Japan’s biggest banks was failing. The strategy tool used at the bank was already over twenty years old, and the head of strategic planning assumed it was time for an upgrade. So he asked me, “Which of the current strategy tools is the best?”

“There isn’t one,” I told him.

Tools don’t make strategy. People do.

The problem in the bank’s business was the way its leaders thought, or more precisely, refused to think.

Making strategy is about how you think about and perceive the world around you. The particular tool or tools you choose don’t matter. Almost any of them will do. Click To Tweet

Elite business school academics regularly produce new strategy tools and methods that have a lifecycle of popularity in the corporate community. I often get asked what I think about whichever new nostrum happens to be the hype of the moment.

My answer is always the same. “If this tool is such a business diacatholicon, how come those who came up with it are still working for wages at a university rather than getting fabulously rich in some entrepreneurial endeavor?”

Do you think I am being harsh? The Monitor Group, Harvard University Professor Michael Porter’s strategy consulting company—yes, that Michael Porter of Porter’s Five Forces fame—ended up in bankruptcy. Turns out that theorizing about strategy successfully is not the same as having to execute one.

How does your team think about strategy? Does your team start with a vision of the future you want to make, or are they anchored by the successful business you already have? Can they abandon without compunction profitable business that no longer fits with your strategic priorities? Are they amenable to taking on reasonable business risk—the kind with high upside gain and low downside loss, or are they tentative when confronted with any risk? How do you think about strategy?

There is no need for better strategy tools as long as you think strategically. Any of the existing tools will do, or any tool that you might invent on your own. Yes, you’re allowed to do that. You might not even need any tools at all.

A first-year business student can fill in the boxes of a strategy framework. Strategic thinking, however, is heavier lifting. So rather than better strategy tools, invest your energy in better strategic thought. No new tool is needed for that.

Just like photography isn’t about the camera, it’s about the person shooting the photo, strategy isn’t about the tool. It’s about the person doing the strategic thinking.

Who is doing yours?

It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera…they are made with the eye, heart and head.”  

– Henri Cartier-Bresson, 20th Century French photographer and founder of the Magnum Photo cooperative

Photo by Steven Bleistein, taken with a fifty-year-old camera on monochrome film.

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