Of challenges, problems and strategies


A strategy is different from a problem. Change your ways and tackle each separately.

‘Strategy’, a word heard in corporate corridors more often than not, is the most misused word in today’s world, almost disgracing its meaning. Different people use it for different purposes, giving different reasons for doing so.

However, the most common profanation of this word by top executives of organisations is when they mean a challenge as a problem and then try to tackle such a problem using tried and tested tools and methods. These ‘tried and tested techniques’ are put on pieces of paper and discussed, sometimes for weeks and months, under the pretext of ‘strategy making’.

Often, the term ‘comprehensive plans’ is also used instead of ‘strategy’ to impart more sovereignty to the project. But the agenda remains the same, that is, tackling the problem, which does not even have the remotest link to the real intention of making a strategy.

What exactly is a ‘strategy’? How is a ‘problem’ defined? What is the difference between a problem and a challenge? We have used these words, at times colloquially and at times interchangeably, without dwelling on their real meaning or right usage. The keyword here is the ‘intent’.

It is only when the word ‘problem’ crops up, that it is felt that an unanticipated and unintended situation has struck, which might change the course of action and decisions. On the other hand, the word ‘strategy’ is an accumulation or integration, we can say, of the intent and the challenges which we face in the course of achieving that intent. So, when we talk about strategy, our psyche is more prepared with what to achieve and how to achieve while also being ready to face the challenges. Therefore, when you are out to achieve something, what seem to be hurdles on the way are not problems but challenges.

Let me elaborate with a simple but appropriate example. Suppose you intend to go from New Delhi to Mumbai by train. There could be challenges like railway reservation, type of berth and availability of food. To overcome these challenges, you formulate a proper ‘strategy’ to prepare yourself before the journey. However, if after boarding the train you find that it is routed for some other destination, then there arises a ‘problem’. Clearly, the difference lies in the ‘intent’.

But the ultimate conundrum is why organisations fail to identify the difference between challenges and problems. As I said earlier, they convert challenges into problems in the process of discussing and finding a suitable, so called ‘strategy’, to put in place to counter the situation. The idea behind such strategy-finding activities in organisations is to entwine oneself with the sense of feeling safe and secure in the dynamic market conditions. ‘Entwine’ is being used intentionally here, as this is a virtual mesh they create for themselves which they are likely to realise much later.

They have this predominant feeling that since they have a proper strategy in place, their business is secured. The reason for such an act of the learned and well-educated executives around the world is to overcome the fear of failure and discomfort.

At the same time, fear and discomfort are the real and integral parts of strategy making. The litmus test of a ‘would be successful strategy’ is the shades of discomfort and fear regarding its success. This is caused by the fact that nobody can see or predict the future, and therefore, no one can make a foolproof strategy. But that is the way to go about it, and we, as professionals, cannot refrain ourselves from taking up these decisions.

A strategy, in the real sense, is about placing bets and making hard choices, that is, choices which are deadly and dreaded most by people. For all reasons, I reinforce that a strategy should have ‘risk of failure’ built into it. In other words, while strategy cannot eliminate ‘risk of failure’ it can increase the ‘probability of success.’

As organisations go along, there should be a defined strategy in place which should also be flexible and capable of being changed as and when the circumstances demand. No strategy can avoid unexpected hurdles in its way. Further, there is no place for a ‘perfectionist’ attitude in the process of strategy formulation.

Therefore, strategy formulators should not get disheartened when the strategies face hurdles in the process of implementation. But one thing has to be ensured —there should be enough room for taking corrective action if something goes amiss.

(The author is VP-HR, GHCL. Follow him on twitter @rajevats)

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