Sun Tzu, who lived more than 2,500 years ago, is credited with formulating The Art of War, a detailed documentation of strategy and tactics that has influenced military generals from ancient Chinese battles to modern warfare. In recent decades, business leaders have referred to this text because its guidance for winning on the field of battle can also be applied to winning in the marketplace.
During historic wars and even in competitive board games, the term “strategy deployment” is used. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives these definitions, among others:
- Strategy: “the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions.”
- To deploy: “to place in battle formation or appropriate positions”
If you substitute business words for military terms, the definitions clearly apply to many organizations engaged in competitive activities. Organizations do need a vision and plan (or strategy) to meet their competition and they do need to execute or deploy resources to appropriate positions.
The prerequisites for strategy deployment
Before embarking on strategy deployment, an organization needs a strategy. Strategy has several components.
- Long-term strategy is built from the organization’s vision of where it wants to be in the future. It is aspirational and achievable and includes SWOT considerations of the entity’s strengths and weaknesses—especially as compared to its competitors—and the opportunities and threats envisioned in the marketplace or other area of operation. This external strategy guides the organization on where it will participate, similar to plans in a military theater of war.
- Additionally the strategy considers current and future capabilities and competencies internally. In order to achieve the external strategy, the organization must tend to resources of people, technology, and infrastructure. This internal strategy sets operational plans.
- Both internal and external strategy elements need to be quantified and dollarized. The strategy must be achievable. A strategic quantification will show projected costs and returns of the major elements of the strategy. Even in military application, the quantification of money and lives at risk versus potential gains helps leaders decide if a nation will participate in a war.
On to strategy deployment
Once the overall strategy is defined, deployment can occur. As in the military definition above, deployment deals with having the right resources in the right positions.
Many organizations use a top-down/bottom-up approach, which may be identified as Hoshin Kanri, push-pull, or catchball. Organizational leaders and operational representatives work through an iterative process to turn the vision and strategy into measurable objectives. During the back-and-forth process, all parties come to agreement on prioritized objectives that are worthwhile and achievable. Often this process of alignment happens annually. Then performance against the objectives is monitored monthly.
The strategic deployment process consists of several phases.
- Define strategic objectives – These are generally looking out three to five years. They address the organization’s key areas of focus, such as customer service, operational effectiveness, resource development, and financial performance.
- Develop operational objectives – These generally deal with annual goals. On a rolling basis, the “annual operating plan” is generally the first year of the strategic plan and its quantification.
- Align departmental objectives – The operational objectives are translated for use in all departments in the organization, with each department defining meaningful local goals. Ideally, departmental quantified plans sum to meet the organization’s overall needs.
- Implement tasks – In this step, specific actions are identified at department level to meet all committed objectives. Resources are assigned to carry out the tasks.
- Track performance – At a department level, progress and results are monitored against activity and performance plans. Any problems are addressed with gap-closure activities. At an organizational level, overall performance is measured in the key areas of focus, often using a balanced scorecard approach to ensure all prioritized areas get appropriate attention.
Strategic deployment in the real world
Strategic and operational excellence objectives describe “what” the organization wants to accomplish. Departmental objectives describe “how” people will actually make things happen.
One pitfall can occur when strategy deployment is simply a top-down push. Imagine the situation of a top-down management mandate saying, “This is what you have to do. Now go do it.” Departmental leadership may agree to the mandate—knowing they won’t keep their jobs long if they don’t—but at the same time they’re thinking, “Okay, now how are we going to do that?” In many cases, they won’t find a workable answer.
That is strategic deployment in name only. The process for achieving strategy deployment in a business, a non-profit, or any other entity must be participative, perhaps more so than in a military field of battle. In fact, the pushback that happens during the planning and deployment process is vital to the success of the strategy. The earlier any hurdles are identified and addressed, the more likely a winning strategy can be identified and implemented. The more involvement those close to operational processes have in defining strategy and deployment objectives, the more likely they will have creative ideas and enthusiasm for achievement of the strategy.
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The process of setting and deploying strategy with a push-pull process “until it’s right” takes time, but it is worth the effort. This lesson from Sun Tzu applies: “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.”