• Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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Reflections on strategy

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It is that time of the year when I retreat from activity and geography to reflect on the core of my work, strategy and to renew and regenerate my mind in preparation for the next twelve months, much like we advise clients to embrace strategic and corporate retreats as a tool for corporate revitalization. This year, I’m in Madrid, Spain at a conference of strategy experts principally from Europe and America, but with an increasingly large Asian contingent. Just like previous years, there is marginal African representation-six out of over 1,200!-but the consolation is that four of those are from Nigeria. Like I mentioned previously on this page (Letter from Cambridge, July 2014), Africa is sadly not yet present to any significant extent at the cutting edge of research and innovation.

For me and Spain, it is getting it right the third time! The first time I planned to travel to Spain, Barcelona at the time, was in 1997 as part of an executive MBA business school students contingent taking a learning trip to a counterpart university. It was in the days when international air travel was scarce during summer and a certain googled military dictator had banned British Airways from operating in Nigeria. It turned out our flight had been overbooked and most of us were turned back at the airport. I chose to abort another planned trip also to Barcelona ten years later in 2007 for academic research purposes as I concluded that six-month trip was fundamentally misaligned with all other aspects of my life at the time. Well, if Barcelona didn’t work, Madrid has certainly been successful and I have had five excellent days so far in the Spanish capital city.

The pre-conference workshop I attended on design thinking in line with the trend towards more open and creative pathways towards strategy formulation was an excellent start! In a world of innovation, globalization, technology, networks and complexity, traditional strategy processes may be sub-optimal, at least in some contexts and strategists are moving towards more creative and involving approaches that include the tools of design, observation, experimentation, brainstorming, adaptation, inspiration and openness and I benefitted from a highly-participatory workshop illustration of this approach. One of my concerns about strategy making in the Nigerian context is that the process it is too often compromised or subverted by power, politics and hierarchy and so I see tremendous value in less formal processes such as design thinking to liberate the minds of organizational participants in the strategy formulation process.

I have had some concerns in recent years about the direction of academic research in strategy, this time not just in Nigeria but particularly in the Western and global context. I was very pleased to note that this concern (the increasing gap between much of strategy research within large parts of academia and the practical needs of businesses) was shared by some of the most important speakers at this conference starting with Michael Tushman of Harvard University, a “foundational scholar” in the field of knowledge and innovation. I listened happily as Tushman  counselled strategy scholars to return to the situation in which research was driven by real life business problems rather than “literature review” which of course comes in after the problem is identified. The great strategy scholar, Henry Mintzberg, one of my all-time favourites, who received the CK Prahalad Award at the conference made a similar point-noting the absence of the word “strategy” or “strategic” in most contemporary articles in the Strategic Management Journal.

The other important point Mintzberg makes is his conviction that the structure of society and capitalism in Western societies, particularly in the US has swung too far in favour of private capital. He advocates efforts to restore a balance between a respected (I would add competent) public sector; a responsible private sector; and a robust plural (civil society) sector. In response to my question, Mintzberg makes the statement, probably to the shock of many US participants, that “the difference between corruption in Nigeria and the US is that it is legal in the US and illegal in Nigeria!” If Mintzberg’s radicalism was surprising, the ideological positions advanced by Unilever global CEO, Paul Polman, were positively startling! Here was an icon of the capitalist system basically advancing a whole slew of “liberal” concepts-the role of business in solving social problems; action on climate change; focus on sustainable and equitable development and poverty eradication; pro-NGO advocacy; a need to moderate the capitalist system; global turmoil being fuelled by inequity and dissatisfaction as evidenced by “Occupy Wall Street” and the so-called Arab Spring; the dysfunction of the Bretton Woods system; the value of CSR and sustainability etc. Clearly something is going on here!

The buzz word for me at this conference beyond these relatively radical viewpoints was “business models” and “business model innovation” which had a whole lot of sessions focused on the subject, including brilliant sessions by Michael Jacobides of London Business School; Christoph Zott of IESE; and Charles Baden-Fuller of Cass Business School. This is a subject which I do not think has gained sufficient traction in the Nigerian space, and which I think should, given what I regard as the homogeneity of business models prevalent across our industries. The highlight session for me however was the presentation on the “granularity of profit” by McKinsey Strategy and Corporate Finance head in Asia, Martin Hirt, data and insight rich and spectacular in its implications. Hirt made the point, backed with 30-year data on the world’s 2,500 biggest firms that industries matter! He stressed in response to my question, that going forward, geography may matter even more!

My head quite frankly is full of new ideas as I take time out to write and email this article, and I am happy I have a few days more in Madrid to see the city and get some rest!

Opeyemi Agbaje