Some are hailing the move of Mr. Alan Mulally from Boeing to the CEO position at Ford Motor as heralding a new age in the strategy process for modern organizations. Mr. Mulally is known for helping Boeing through some genuinely rough spots in the midst of which the shape of the future and the right path through it were far from clear.
As Carol Hymowitz points out in her Wall Street Journal article of earlier this week, the days of the annual strategic retreat may be on the way out. These are often the scene of an arduous, ponderous, and hugely disruptive process that generally proves, in the end, to be of little real value at all, if not wholly meaningless. It tends to follow a linear course, and is inward-looking, doing little to integrate the parts of the organization with each other, not to mention its customers, vendors, and the rest of the real world. Projections are simply sent up the chain, and then sent back down bound in a document now called the annual strategic plan.
Mr. Mulally appears to have a more dynamic method than that, regularly subjecting the organization’s strategic thinking to the real world and to the modification in practice that might ensue. Of course, there are now management guru’s leaping into the marketing breach to capture this idea; one claims dramatically that strategists today must be like “white-water rafters,” constantly making split-second decisions in order to stay afloat and ahead of the competition, which is right behind and just waiting for you to make a slip. This sort of thinking is, of course, pap.
I don’t think Mr. Mulally would view what he does as like that at all. In fact, I don’t think it can be described properly as “strategizing.” Based on the description in the linked article, it seems to be a more dynamic and fluid process in both purpose and practice.
For example, Mr. Mulally seems to be rather frank about how the successes he achieved at Boeing came from his style of management, rather from his own (individual, or personal) leadership. He created a venue which supported the generation of initiatives of strategic value that were vetted – not by senior management who clued out lower levels as soon as they had produced a promising idea – but by a wider and deeper range of managers more broadly positioned throughout the organization. This can help incorporate thinking arising from tactical-level opportunities and obstacles, together with operational-level practice, into a robustly innovative and validating system which informs the creation, development, issuance, and on-going application of ideas that are intended to have, or that can amass, strategic import.
I doubt if Mr. Mulally would describe himself as a white-water rafter. I gather that he views himself more prosaicly as what he is: an engineer, a problem solver. Or, in other words: a manager. He has created a venue in which he can cultivate and manage the generation of leadership from deeper within his organization. He simply manages it intelligently. Imagine that.