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Who Owns Strategy?

In this age of ubiquitious information, is our ever-flattening world making top leadership obsolete?

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Yesterday, a reader on another blog (That’s Quotable [Kate Sweetman]) reacted to a piece I wrote last week on strategy.  He asked, in effect, why is strategy so often owned by the top of the house, and not more distributed among the people who are really doing the work, understanding its possibilities, meeting the customers, etc.

Great question.  Is our ever-flattening world making top leadership obsolete? 

There is certainly good evidence – most famously popularized by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds – that a lot more people have useful insights and ideas than just the few at the top.  In fact, as a collective, the crowd has significantly more ideas and wiser judgment.  What does that say about the legitimacy of the folks at the top? 

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Who should own strategy?

I read the book a while ago, and, as just about everybody on the planet knows by now, it is a must-read.  As I recall, the opening anecdote talks about how a crowd at a county fair did a better job of accurately estimating the weight of an ox than did the proverbial panel of experts.  The crowd’s individual guesses, when averaged, came in very close to the ox’s true weight.  Closer to the true weight, in fact, than were any of the individual opinions of the cattle “experts” on hand.

I think this says a lot about the wisdom of the collective, but the outcome should come as no surprise to anyone living in a democracy. Sometimes one person/one vote really goes wrong (when a majority is misled by a bad leader, misinformation, fear or prejudice), but over time it is the best way to make decisions.  When everyone is focused on the right outcome, whatever that may be, it is hard to beat.

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This country fair example, however, also says something significant about the need for leadership at the top even when the crowd (when averaged) is wise.  Think about it: somebody had to pick the ox.  Somebody had to collect the crowd, set up the “rules of engagement,” and establish the structure that juxtaposed those cattle experts against the crowd.  That organizer was the top leader.  This does not by any means make illegitimate the crowd, the individuals in it and what they bring to the table.  Clearly, they need to have their knowledge plumbed and voices heard.  But, at a certain point, somebody had to shape the agenda and circumstances within which the others were acting.   

The answer is: we need both.  Both top leadership and the company as a collective need to own the strategy.  The top of the house needs to set the parameters and create the conditions within which the larger organization will apply its wisdom, knowledge and efforts. The communications between the two groups needs to be open and fluid so that information, ideas, and insights can flow — so that one can inform the other.   But I don’t think we have quite evolved to the point where there is no need for senior leadership.  We have, however, matured to a stage where, supported by information technology, senior leadership would be unwise indeed to fail to vigorously seek out and hear the voice of the hard-working people they lead.

Best,

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Kate