Too much Spock, not enough James T. Kirk – this was the primary concern of Professor Allan Trench FAIM when ruminating on the topic of strategic thinking during AIM WA’s recent sundowner titled ‘Strategy is Dead…Long Live Strategy”.

 

The UWA Business School MBA Director spoke at length during the two-hour event and drew on his extensive 30-year career in academia and industry – which includes authoring 10 books and 50 peer-reviewed articles – when addressing the current state and understanding of strategy in business. 

“Strategy in its classical form is dead; gone with the old days of large planning departments,” Professor Trench said. 
“We’re living in the VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.

“Is strategy dead? The answer is no – it mutates every time and everywhere. There are forms of strategy that are alive and well, one of which we refer to as scenario planning.”

Professor Trench highlighted the importance of ‘strategy personas’ during his talk, and said it was important for people to “understand their own disposition to strategy” in order to successfully formulate one in the boardroom with other leadership personnel, who each possessed their own strategy persona.

Much like the headstrong Kirk and logical Spock on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, the key to unlocking an effective strategy is understanding one another and playing to the strong suit of each team member.

He likened this introspective approach to the Myers-Briggs framework, which allows users to complete a self-report questionnaire and determine a distinct personality type with its own characteristics and traits. 

“We did this with one of the companies I’m on the board of and we worked out why we couldn’t possibly do a strategy – everybody had totally different personas and were pulling in totally different directions,” Professor Trench said.

“It was no wonder we couldn’t agree with each other. The advantage of that simple questionnaire was it surfaced all the different personas in the boardroom.

“That led to a strategic conversation around how the company makes its decisions and where it’s trying to go.
“Once you’ve got to a truly strategic conversation, you’re in pretty good shape.”

A question of sport

The difference between economists and strategists, according to Professor Trench, was that the former likes league tables while the latter is more interested in a knockout cup-style competition.

“That’s when strategy can really come into play in terms of doing things differently instead of when things play out over a statistical period of time,” he said. 

He cited Russia’s recent FIFA World Cup victory over Spain as a good example of this ‘play your opponent’ strategic mindset; the dramatic round of 16 match saw Russia eliminate Spain after penalties, despite the latter being the far stronger side on paper. The home side simply hung back and conserved energy, counter-attacking from afar and waiting for Spain to tire as the game wore into extra time.

“It was a classic rope-a-dope strategy akin to George Foreman punching himself out to the point where Muhammad Ali comes back in and wins the game,” Professor Trench said. 

“Strategy is fashion, strategy is chess, strategy is jazz, strategy is pretty much everything. Everyone is a strategist. There’s no formal qualification to be a strategist.”

An enterprising spirit

Professor Trench argued applying logic was key to unlocking the fundamentals of strategy.   

 

“How would you put a giraffe in the refrigerator,” he asked. “Think like a five-year-old.

“Piece by piece. Get a bigger fridge. The top answer is always the most logical one – ‘open the fridge door and put the giraffe in’.” 
This kind of outside the box thinking can often yield the answer to formulating an effective strategy, according to Professor Trench. The rest will follow accordingly, from the deployment of tools to reading the contextual environment and the subject area. 

Returning to his Star Trek analogy, Professor Trench referenced the scene in 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan where Captain Kirk is faced with the Kobayashi Maru, a training simulation designed to recreate a no-win scenario. 

Rather than accepting the binary lose/lose scenario, Kirk instead rewires the game, thinking outside the box and formulating a strategy that wins the day, outfoxing or outmanoeuvring the limitations of the test.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world, Professor Trench said this mindset of thinking on your feet and not getting bogged down in theory was integral. 

“Don’t read the literature,” he said. “Don’t bother about the tools. Just get out there and do the strategy.” 

During the sundowner, Professor Trench put forward four levels of strategic thinking, with each level signifying a different type of worker. 

 

  • Level one – Just do it 
    Logical thinking candidates.
  • Level two – Deployment of tools Tools and framework-based candidates.
  • Level three – Contextual thinking (and reading)
    Well-read candidates.
  • Level four – Research and theorisation
    Candidates who are writing the texts.

Greta Andrews-Taylor is a Journalist at The West Australia and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.