Two Assumptions in Strategic Development

Two Assumptions in Strategic Development

Innovation People began life asking questions about people and about innovation. This included researching the nature of strategic thinking. In this article we summarise some of our thinking, summarising two forms of strategy related to two metaphors: planning and navigation.

Two Metaphors for Strategic Development

The metaphors of planning and navigation have become important in our understanding of how people and business might develop deliverable strategies.  We’re not going to begin this article with those metaphors.  Instead, we’re going to begin by thinking about the way we apply the words, strategy and strategies in general practise of leading business or the development and implementation of initiatives more generally.

Thinking Beyond Conventions

It strikes me that it is a common convention that people will happily and (I think very properly) refer to the need for a clear ‘strategy’.  So, let’s strip that word back for a moment and think first about definitions.

Understanding Strategy

At the most basic level the word ‘strategy’ is derived from a word meaning ‘general’ and is applied in phrases such as, the ‘the craft of the general’, or, ‘the art of the general’, or maybe – and to quote the title of the book by one of the greatest advisors on strategy itself, Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Some might want to think of a fundamental application of strategy in the image of the general being able to take to the high ground and have a literal overview of land and people to be conquered.  In that overview, they are able to see their ultimate aim and the various objectives along the way.  It’s a good and useful metaphor.

Forms of Strategy and the Art of War

Sun Tzu, one of the greatest writers on strategy in history wrote not of having this literal overview.  In The Art of War we learn the strategy focuses on creating opportunities through manipulating the enemy and choosing the moment to take action.  In terms of the application of resources, Sun Tzu refers to the use of both orthodox (cheng) and unorthodox (ch’i) methods and that it is important to look for imbalances of power and influence that create opportunity (ch’uan).  He talks also about never, ever adopting a completely passive, defensive position and always looking for strategic advantage through understanding this opportunity.  Fundamental to this business of creating strategic advantage is in what Sun Tzu distinguishes between the formed and declared strategy an enemy can respond to and the unformed or formless strategy that creates surprise and informs opportunity.  It is through deploying such formless strategies that the general will gain intelligence to create advantage.

In our work, we are fascinated by the idea of these formless strategies which seem so far from the conventions on strategy we are so used to hearing of and witnessed being applied.  More of this shortly.

By convention, in practise  most people learn about developing strategies by conflating the word strategy, in other words by connecting the word to another.  For example people  commonly people connect ‘strategy’ to ‘plan’, creating ‘strategic plan’, or ‘strategic planning’.  Another pair of connected words is in linking ‘strategy’ to ‘vision’, creating ‘strategic vision’.  We understand the use of these compound words and the processes and thinking that sit behind them.   It is our view that this convention has diminished the development of effective strategies, our planning and our envisioning.  Let’s briefly consider these words, ‘plan’ and ‘vision’ and the impact on strategic development.   We’ll go on to introduce a third word ‘navigate’.

Strategic Planning

The word plan is always about the known world, the methods we are familiar with, the resources at our disposal and so on.  The root of the word from Latin, means ‘map’.  Inevitably, maps are about the known world.  Literally someone has seen and written down or drawn a plan – or map – of the environment.  If you think about methods you might be aware of that are about planning, the chances are they will be about known world.  They will be about that which is open and in view of all and which can be very largely anticipated in terms of risk and opportunity.  It is our contention that if we maintain the compound word, ‘strategic plan’, then we just get stuck in the known world and the more variables and uncertainties disrupt that known world, the more unreliable our planning will become.

Strategic Envisioning

The word vision is not necessarily about the known world.  It is about perceiving what might be, about being able to form words, images and ideas of some thing, or some state, or achievement, or whatever.  There’s nothing wrong with having a vision of this nature.  In fact we’d see it as fundamental to growing an innovative business or approach to development.  Inevitably it is about perceiving – describing what is beyond ourselves, and what we are.  Typically, it is about adopting what we would describe as a ‘future focus’.

Building Strategic Resilience

Researching and developing the SPICE Framework and in particular our behavioural assessment, we are able to identify those with a preference for the known world and those with a preference to looking to opportunity in the unknown, adopting this ‘future focus’.  From deploying this behavioural assessment very many times, we can identify organisations and individuals who have what we describe as an ‘internal focus’ and those organisations and individuals who have an ‘external focus’ on the future and opportunity.

We know those with an internal focus will be great planners.  However, we also know that the more uncertainties and unpredictabilities increase in a particular context, so those who prefer an internal focus will adopt defensive positions, which runs the risk organisations look ever more inward, become what we describe as ‘brittle’ and begin to fail, often by imploding.  This is precisely what Sun Tzu referred to in the effect generals and armies experience when they don’t deploy well developed strategies and when they over-rely on the conventions, the habits they are used to.

On the other hand, we know those open to the external environment, those we describe as having an external focus, are more open to opportunity and possibility.  They are more likely to take risks and to be the entrepreneurs and the innovators.  These are precisely the people who might implement what Sun Tzu described as ‘formless’ strategies, learning from the new and the otherwise unknown.  We’re known since the days of Sun Tzu that effective strategies come from being able to integrate the known world, with its strategies based on well-formed planning and the unknown world built on a vision that is future focused.

Assessing Strategic Resilience

Through developing the SPICE Assessment tool and seeing it in use, we’ve learned it is possible to understand and build the resilience of teams in organisations, in the balance between this preference for an internal focus and planning on the one hand alongside a focus on the external world and opportunity on the other.  The most resilient organisations are able to do both.

However, organisations do not demonstrate resilience by as it were conflating the proper role of planning with strategy nor the proper role of vision(aries) with strategy.  There is a need for organisations to develop their strategic capabilities that include what we describe as a balanced between planning and what we describe as navigation.  So here we begin to think about the two approaches, strategic planning and strategic navigation.

We’ve already summarised some comments related to strategic planning.  Now, we’ll take a look at what is meant by strategic navigation by means of a story.

A Story about Strategic Navigators

You might have your own hero navigator and explore, in which case call them to mind.  One of our heroes and the story we summarise here is of Captain Cook, a fellow Yorkshireman.

Partly because I am English and a Yorkshireman, I love the story of James Cook and his voyages.  By 1768, James Cook was already an accomplished Royal Naval surveyor and cartographer.  –  In other words, he was good at creating maps of what could be seen and experienced others could use. – In that year, King George III commissioned an expedition with two secret purposes.  One was to observe the transit of Venus, the other to seek evidence of what was then believed might be an ‘undiscovered southern land’.  To do this, James Cook had to use his skills as a navigator to sail from the known world, through the largely uncharted ocean eventually landing in New Zealand, which had been ‘discovered’ by Abel Tasman 127 years earlier.  From there he set out again and ‘discovered’ Australia.  Cook then returned to England and made two subsequent voyages back to Australia.  Critically, Cook had skills to not only set sail into the unknown but also the skills to chart where he was at any point, how he’d got there and, critically how to get back.  These are the skills of the navigator.  Critical for him and other navigators, he had been commissioned to set sail.  In other words, he was trusted to get on with the task and obliged to bring back the results of his navigation.  His skills as a planner were important, of course they were.  Of greater importance were his skills as a navigator.

Combining Strategic Planning and Navigation

It is our argument, that any consideration of the development of strategies has to involve both planning and navigation.  If we simply maintain the first, then as with Sun Tzu’s warning, we just end up with an approach that is about building barracked and risks seeing what’s been built implode and collapse on itself or decay.  We must include the second, navigation through which we see Sun Tzu’s formlessness worked out in going to explore, to find out, to bring back intelligence that will lead to development.

Supporting Strategic Development

It is our contention that truly resilient organisations incorporate a balance of strategic planning and strategic navigation.  We have developed tools and resource to support both, including a behavioural assessment to review your people and organisation.  We can also support you and your business in developing strategies for organisational and for people development.

Innovation People is able to support businesses developing their talent and delivering their strategies through simple, accessible tools, resources and training.  Get in touch for more information through our strategic development produt at [email protected] or visit,

Written by Michael Croft

July 13, 2023