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Why Smart People Struggle with Strategy

This post provides a brief overview of the almost counter-intuitive findings presented by Roger Martin in his Harvard Business Review blog post on June 12, 2014 entitled Why Smart People Struggle with Strategy.

We know that sound strategic planning is an essential component of success for businesses of all sizes. Contrary to what may be commonly held, though, Martin suggested that “those head-of-the-class folks with top-notch academic credentials” do not seem to naturally excel at strategy. Why?

In short, it seems that academic pursuits are slated toward finding the right answer whereas successful business simply needs a good enough answer. This academic vs. practical tension is particularly pronounced given that business functions in a changing environment with an uncertain future. Uncertainty paralyzes some people, and since business is full of uncertainty, it presents special problems for those who thrive on tested, scientific solutions. For them, the absence of a strong footing proves difficult to navigate as they are forced to map out a flexible strategy that can be adapted to turbulence.

Here are some key takeaways quoted from Martin’s post:

. . . The best strategists aren’t intimidated or paralyzed by uncertainty and ambiguity; they are creative enough to imagine possibilities that may or may not actually exist and are willing to try a course of action knowing full well that it will have to be tweaked or even overhauled entirely as events unfold.

The essential qualities for this type of person are flexibility, imagination, and resilience. But there is no evidence that these qualities are correlated with pure intelligence. . . .

This does not imply that smart people should be kept away from strategy. It does imply however that strategy should not be a monoculture — as it can become in strategy consulting firms — of high-IQ analytical wizards. Great strategy is aided by diversity of thought and attitude. It needs people who have experienced failure as well as success. It needs people who have a great imagination. It needs people who have built their resilience in the past. And most importantly, it needs people who respect one another for their range of qualities, something that is often going to be most difficult for the proverbial smartest person in the room.

Roger Martin

In conclusion, it appears that academic aptitude doesn’t rule the day. Instead, business leaders should focus on surrounding themselves with competence — simply creative people coming from a variety of real-life experiences. Joined in an environment of respect and amplified by the free exchange of ideas, a successful business strategy can flourish.

Post Changelog

  • First published: 17-Jun-2014
  • Minor edits: 23-Apr-2020
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