Paul de Ruijter, Director at De Ruijter Strategy, says the alternative to strategy is constant fire fighting and lagging behind the facts. The SPS will play an important role in recreating the ‘lost skill’ that strategy has become by spreading best practices, he says, supporting practitioners and helping strategic planners help themselves through communities of practice.
Why is strategy important?
Strategy is important – I believe the alternative is constant fire fighting and lagging behind the facts, which I see a lot.
Most managers are in ‘reactive mode’, avidly solving one problem after another: this tends to result in constant stress, and once problems are defined, there is no alternative, there is no freedom. I believe that strategy is there to be proactive. Shell was proactive regarding the 1973 oil crisis – through their scenarios, they were mentally (and as a team) prepared. The same is true for Rabobank regarding the credit crisis (already in their scenarios in 2003) and the subsequent Greek default. Strategy helps organisations to be future oriented – it is possible to be ahead of the curve.
What should be the role of the SPS?
The SPS is needed to recreate the ‘lost skill’ that strategy has become. Most companies tend to think that it is enough to react quickly, having agility through turbulence. But developing competencies takes time, building factories takes time, building trusted relations takes time, developing new breakthrough technology takes time – often years. So it is important that leaders look ahead, way past the next quarter or even fiscal year.
Prediction is impossible, but it is possible to take account of all relevant scenarios. It is possible to develop real call and put options to be prepared for most of them. However, somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s, we seem to have lost this skill. Short-termism is everywhere but today’s challenges – like deleveraging and regaining trust in the financial sector, balancing our countries’ budgets or delivering the transitions toward sustainability – all require a long view: these aren’t problems that can be fixed in one or two quarters, nor even in one or two years. We need strategic planners as a countervailing power against the also-needed short-term problem solvers.
The SPS can help to put these issues on the agenda, spread best practices, support practitioners with scientific ‘evidence’ and help strategic planners help themselves through communities of practice.
What do you think is the main issue with strategy as a profession?
As someone with ‘only’ 20 years of experience – I learned the trade in 1992-1993 during a seven-month project as research assistant at Shell Group Planning – I still value the knowledge and guidance of people with 30 or 40 years of experience. Many strategists see a ‘job’ as a strategist as something they do for a few years in the hope to become a manager of some sort afterwards. Indeed, it is very valuable to have line managers stepping into strategy, and moving back into the line afterwards.
But we also need professional strategists who can look back the full period of looking ahead. For me it is great to reflect on my work 10-20 years ago. What did we miss? What did we overestimate? For me strategy really is like playing the piano: one gets better through the years. I really appreciate the SPS putting this professionalism on the agenda.
My latest book, which unfortunately is only currently available in Dutch, offers a more long-term European view on strategy, as opposed to most short-term shareholder value-based text books from the USA. It offers an overview of 40 years of experience with scenario-based strategic planning, with many new cases all thanks to my co-author, former SPS Vice-Chairman Henk Alkema, who did the original analyses behind the famous Shell 1971 oil price scenarios.
We are working on a Dutch rewrite of the book, but for those who cannot wait, we welcome feedback on our draft paper about strategic planning to get through the current world crisis.
After recently finding out that one can become a Fellow of SPS, I have requested this honour. I look forward to seeing my years of strategy work, both in writing, teaching and above all, in practise, acknowledged. I see it as my professional obligation to continue to pass on the knowledge that others that went before me, passed on to me.
Let’s make sure that the next generations of strategists can continue to build on the generations that went before us. The future is too important to be ignored.
To find out more about how strategic planning can help us through the present world crisis, please check out this article.