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The Four Key Attributes of Strategic Management

Before discussing the strategic management process, let’s briefly talk about four attributes of strategic management.16 It should become clear how this course differs from other courses that you have had in functional areas, such as accounting, marketing, operations, and finance. Exhibit 1.1 provides a definition and the four attributes of strategic management. First, strategic management is directed toward overall organizational goals and objectives. That is, effort must be directed at what is best for the total organization, not just a single functional area. Some authors have referred to this perspective as “organizational versus individual rationality.”17 That is, what might look “rational” or ideal for one functional area, such as operations, may not be in the best interest of the overall firm. For example, operations may decide to schedule long production runs of similar products to lower unit costs. However, the standardized output may be counter to what the marketing department needs to appeal to a demanding target market. Similarly, research and development may “overengineer” the product to develop a far superior offering, but the design may make the product so expensive that market demand is minimal.

Second, strategic management includes multiple stakeholders in decision making.19 Stakeholders are those individuals, groups, and organizations that have a “stake” in the success of the organization, including owners (shareholders in a publicly held corporation), employees, customers, suppliers, the community at large, and so on. (We’ll discuss this in more detail later in this chapter.) Managers will not be successful if they focus on a single stakeholder. For example, if the overwhelming emphasis is on generating profits for the owners, employees may become alienated, customer service may suffer, and the suppliers may resent demands for pricing concessions.

Third, strategic management requires incorporating both short-term and long-term perspectives.20 Peter Senge, a leading strategic management author, has referred to this need as a “creative tension.”21 That is, managers must maintain both a vision for the future of the organization and a focus on its present operating needs. However, financial markets can exert significant pressures on executives to meet short-term performance targets. Studies have shown that corporate leaders often take a short-term approach to the detriment of creating long-term shareholder value.

Fourth, strategic management involves the recognition of trade-offs between effectiveness and efficiency. Some authors have referred to this as the difference between “doing the right thing” (effectiveness) and “doing things right” (efficiency).23 While managers must allocate and use resources wisely, they must still direct their efforts toward the attainment of overall organizational objectives. As noted by Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, “Less than perfect strategy execution against the right strategy will probably work. A 100% execution against the wrong strategy won’t.”

To summarize, leaders typically face many difficult and challenging decisions. In a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, Wendy Smith and her colleagues provide some valuable insights in addressing such situations.25 The author team studied corporations over many years and found that senior executives are often faced with similar sets of opposing goals, which can polarize their organizations. Such tensions or paradoxes fall into three categories, which may be related to three questions that many leaders view as “either/or” choices.

• Do we manage for today or for tomorrow? A firm’s long-term survival requires taking risks and learning from failure in the pursuit of new products and services. However, companies also need consistency in their products and services. This depicts the tension between existing products and new ones, stability and change. This is the innovation paradox. For example, in the late 1990s, IBM’s senior leaders saw the Internet wave and felt the need to harness the new technology. However, the firm also needed to sustain its traditional strength in client-server markets. Each strategy required different structures, cultures, rewards, and metrics—which could not easily be executed in tandem.

• Do we stick to boundaries or cross them? Global supply chains can be very effective, but they may also lack flexibility. New ideas can emerge from innovation activities that are dispersed throughout the world. However, not having all the talent and brains in one location can be costly. This is the tension between global connectedness and local needs, the globalization paradox. In 2009, NASA’s director of human health and performance started an initiative geared toward generating new knowledge through collaborative cross-firm and cross-disciplinary work. Not too surprisingly, he faced strong pushback from scientists interested in protecting their turf and their identities as independent experts. Although both collaboration and independent work were required to generate new innovations, they posed organizational and cultural challenges.

• Whom do we focus on, shareholders or stakeholders? Clearly, companies exist to create value. But managers are often faced with the choice between maximizing shareholder gains while trying to create benefits for a wide range of stakeholders— employees, customers, society, etc. However, being socially responsible may bring down a firm’s share price, and prioritizing employees may conflict with short-term shareholders’ or customers’ needs. This is the obligation paradox. Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010. The goal was to double the size of the business over 10 years, improve the health and well-being of more than a billion people, and cut the firm’s environmental impact in half. He argued that such investments would lead to greater profits over the long term; whereas a singular focus on short-term profits would have adverse effects on society and the environment. His arguments were persuasive to many; however, there have been many challenges in implementing the plan. Not surprisingly, it has caused uncertainty among senior executives that has led to anxiety and fights over resource allocation.

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