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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Strategic Thinking Beyond the Business Plan: Business Is Human After All

“When smart people came up with ideas for well-conceived business opportunities, we said go for it. As always, organizational charts, management consultants, and business plans played virtually no role in any of this. My own strategic thinking I did mostly while showering or shaving.”

—Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman and CEO of Bear Stearns

Similarly, when I write an essay, I inevitably pass on first constructing a formal outline and go instead off of what I have worked out in ratiocinating while exercising, in transit, or showering. Freeing the mind up to search for and try out connections between ideas, and working a theory over and over—like kneeding dough or forming a clay pot on a wheel—are inconsistent with too much structure.

The human mind needs its own space to solve abstract or applied problems needing considerable thought. Subjecting the processes of theory-construction and problem-solving (“critical thinking”) to too much structure is simply not in line with the nature of the mind itself. Human reasoning, it turns out, is not a linear process that necessarily fits within the confines of a business plan or consulting diagnostic tool. Particularly if creativity and innovation are to be encouraged, mechanistic structure must succumb to organic process.

For example, I did a consulting project as part of an organizational design senior seminar that I took in college. The professor had developed a structured organizational audit—a diagnostic tool geared to detecting discrepancies between an organization chart and actual communication. As he had developed the instrument, we were naturally to rely on it in making our recommendations to the clients. I used the tool on a computer retail store and proffered recommendations from it. Because the business was family-owned and operated, I could see that the communications were in part a function of the family dynamics, which the professor’s organizational audit failed to pick up. So I asked some additional questions and made some supplemental recommendations, which the business owner/manager found quite useful—unlike those that came from the audit.

Even though the professor graded me lower for adding the recommendations, the client went so far as to call him to urge that an A be given to me for the project. From what the client told me later, the professor was perhaps too attached to his “organizational audit” tool (which he used in his own consulting practice). My orientation as a novice consultant was neither to my grade nor to the tool; rather, I wanted to help the owner/manager by proffering him insight that he could use to solve his problem. Although I cannot be sure at this point, I might have come up with my final recommendation to him on the way to a class, during a run, or even while shaving.

So I can totally understand Alan Greenberg’s aversion to organization charts, business plans and “professional” consultants. A true consultant comes from a perspective of expertise that clients do not have. For example, a consultant could be an academic or a nearly-retired practioner. In either case, the advice should be viewed as supplemental to the client’s focal situs “on the ground”—that is, consulting advice is something for a client to digest and possibly integrate with his or her larger considerations outside the range of the consultant.

Being geared to helping a client, a consultant should be able to let go of his or her “black bag” if the tools therein fall short in diagnosing the organizational dysfunction, or “illness.” I suspect that one's “gut” can come into play, effectively transcending the mechanistic tools, only if the consultant cares, because only then is he or she intrinsically oriented to the client’s situation rather than the consultant’s own bag of tricks as ends in themselves. In the end, consulting is interpersonal—helping others who are suffering from a problem. Such problems typically involving human beings, it should be no surprise if a consultant should approach them from more than one level.

Therefore, both strategic and consulting thinking ought to be accommodated in the sense of giving them some organic free range. Treating business plans, organizational charts, and diagnostic tools as ends in themselves, as if they were rational beings (i.e., Kant's kingdom of ends), is ultimately self-defeating, if not suffocating. Just as managing can sometimes be informed by simply wandering around, so too the strategic mind needs some room to roam.  

Click to add a question or comment on formal tools and insight in strategy and consulting.


Alan C. Greenberg, The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010)