Are you fluent in strategy – or is your language stifling your success?

In war there is only one winner, but in business many firms can win by offering different types of value to their customers, say Suvi Nenonen and Kaj Storbacka.

It was General Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War published in 1832 that introduced the three levels of activity in organising groups: strategic, tactical and operational. Ever since, strategy is overloaded with language borrowed from war. Hence, we are – both in sports and business – competing, dominating, penetrating, targeting, attacking, and winning. These confrontational words are, however, heavily biased and not always beneficial in today’s business environment.

One of the biggest drawbacks from using the colourful and dramatic language from war and sports is that it over-emphasises the “competing-to-be-best” idea.

Inherently we end up framing ourselves in a situation where there is only one winner. We see ourselves being in a zero-sum game, where you have to beat the competition “in their own game” in order to be a winner. As a result we see only one best way to compete.

However, in most business contexts nothing could be further from the truth. In war there is only one winner, but in business many firms can win by offering different types of value to their customers – just think of Pak’n’Save, Farro Fresh and My Food Bag.

In sports there is a given set of rules by which to play by, but most rules of the game governing businesses can be influenced by the players themselves. For example Air New Zealand has been very savvy in negotiating with governments and building partnership, even across the borders of Star Alliance, to build a route network that supports its strategic objectives.

So, more often than not our businesses are operating in flexible positive-sum game environments where there can be multiple winners, several winning strategies, and the rules of the game can be changed over time. If this rings true to you and your business, then you should be wary of the legacy language of war and sports.

Finding new metaphors from arts
Unfortunately, the problem of “war talk” is not fixed by merely eliminating all war-like references. Language is one of the most important tools of leaders, so new metaphors are needed to replace the obsolete ones.

Increasingly, leaders are looking for creative human activities, such as arts, for inspiration.

Arts are not zero-sum games: the more good artists there are, the more audiences grow and the arts flourish. Furthermore, the language of arts is naturally collaborative and long-term.

We orchestrate performances and we design patterns. We view our customers as audiences and we aim to create expressions that excites and engages them. And the ultimate goal is not short-term success but enduring objects and experiences that influence things to come.

An additional benefit of art-related language is that it offers differentiating metaphors to suit different types of organisations and leadership styles. Consider, for example, a symphony orchestra and a jazz band. Whereas the orchestra operates under a strict plan (the score), a jazz band works under the gestalt of the basic structure of a jazz tune. Improvisation would not be approved in the orchestra, but in a jazz band it is the rule and the essence. Which beckons the question: is your organisation more Mozart or Miles Davis?

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