Stephen Douglas




United States


Public Administration


Jan 2016 - Sep 2017

By Stephen Douglas

Strategy as the art of creating superior performance

I’ve been a part of various strategy development processes in different jobs over the years. For example: as interim CEO of a political party before and after successful election campaigns and as senior project adviser in an intergovernmental organisation, where we used the Logical Framework Approach for project planning, monitoring and evaluation.

The first time I encountered the SWOT analysis, I thought it was fantastic, if a little confusing – that which is a Threat to my organisation’s market share, is a Weakness, but to improve it might be an Opportunity! “If we put the same things in three different boxes, is this really that helpful?” I remember wondering.

One of the reasons I chose to do an Executive MBA at Oxford University’s Said Business School was to learn more about how to lead strategy development processes in my work that were infused with cutting-edge analytical tools and practices. After this week’s classes, I can do this.

The old way of looking at strategy was to identify your competitive advantage, which might be a lower price or a superior product. Through such a strategic development process, involving everyone in your company, you would then come up with a way of improving your performance by accentuating this alleged competitive advantage.

The problem with all of this competitive advantage stuff is that many companies with apparent competitive advantages fail; many mediocre companies doing the same things as other mediocre companies nevertheless thrive; and many organisations with no obvious competitive advantages persistently succeed.

The only real evidence many traditional strategic development processes often find for a company’s alleged competitive advantage is that the company still exists! Then, the process looks into how the organisation works and declares: well, we exist therefore we have a competitive advantage, and this is it – Competitive Advantage X!

As Executive MBA students at Oxford Said we’re being taught to think differently about the art of creating superior performance.

The SWOT analysis will only work if you understand precisely where the boundaries of the market segment you’re analysing lie. You need to find only four or five strategic issues, and then focus on them. If you have fewer than four or five, your focus is too narrow. Or more than this, and your focus is too wide. Strategic problems are characterised by equifinality – there’s always more than one ‘good enough’ strategy to follow. Leaders must choose the strategy that best reflects their values. Leaders must craft the new strategic narrative and relentlessly promote it. Don’t rely on building forts, by, for example, erecting ever greater barriers to entry– get out in front of the future: consciously drive the change, before it happens to you.

We learned that the art of creating superior performance requires a multiplicity of in themselves unimpressive actions in every possible area that can impact an organisation’s performance. The idea of strategy as diligence means that you can mitigate the risk of inferior performance by paying close attention, on an ongoing basis, to all of the activities which aggregated together create your overall performance.

The example of a game of chess – the favoured analogy of traditional teachings about strategy – compared with climbing Everest was given to illustrate another point. In both examples, it’s crucial, sure, to select the right strategy: the right move or the right route to the top of the mountain. The difference, however, between the two examples is that in chess actually making the move is simple – your fingers manoeuver the pawn across the board. In the other example, you still have to climb the mountain. And so it is with strategy; you must be diligent in executing the strategy, and be prepared to change strategy as the weather – you must always be monitoring changes.

I spent the little free time I had outside of classes during this week long module on various kinds of career-related activities. I want to ensure that I make the most of my time studying at Oxford University. I want to ensure the superior performance of my career itself is sustained over the coming decades – this is actually why I am doing an Executive MBA.

A consultant from an elite global executive recruitment organisation visited our class on Tuesday. He explained how his industry works. My work as a diplomat in a team of forty-four nationalities of different ages and genders; studying in an MBA class with people of a similar number of nationalities; as gender focal point in an international organisation; and as interim CEO of an anti-sectarian political party in Northern Ireland, he suggested, meant I should be looking at the Diversity function in global corporations – they need people like me, apparently. Brilliant insight!

Others among Saïd Business School’s team of specialised careers’ advisers assisted me to pinpoint the clear goal of transitioning from the public sector into the private sector.

These advisers have also helped me to assemble a strategy for implementing such a transition. It involves five key areas that I need to work on constantly and concurrently. Executing this strategy diligently will take time – maybe even a year or two. Each step along the path will of itself be unimpressive, small – rewording a part of my CV here; the drafting of a LinkedIn profile element there; reaching out to people working in the corporate functions of Diversity, Corporate Social Impact and Corporate Diplomacy areas, and a thousand other such small and in themselves unimpressive actions.

It was, therefore, most interesting to hear what our strategy teacher had to say, almost as an aside, as he completed to considerable applause his tour de force of lectures this week. He told us something along the lines of: Everything I’ve taught you this week you can apply in your work – that’s a given. But, you should also be able too to apply it in your personal lives, and to directing your own career’s evolution.

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