Smart People and Strategy

A short post on the HBR blog from last June came across my desk this morning and of course caught my eye with the title, “Why Smart People Struggle with Strategy.”  It’s an easy read in which the author makes the argument that the qualities of a good strategist are not necessarily coincident with high IQ.  I think it’s more than a bit hyped to suggest that very intelligent individuals don’t make good strategist, and the piece definitely gives the impression that lots of individuals with less-than-high IQs do in fact make great strategists.

On the one hand he makes a number of points with which I agree or which I simply appreciate.  Among them:

  • strategy is not about a single right answer; there isn’t one
  • strategy is about making choices in the face of an uncertain future
  • there isn’t even a way to truly determine in retrospect if a given strategy was “right”
  • strategists need to be able to imagine possibilities that may or may not exist

All of those are good points,but the central part of his argument is that people with high IQs often do not also possess the character traits that allow one to engage in the points listed above.  What is most curious is his fixation on traditional management consultants as being somehow representative of corporate “strategists” in general.  While most consulting firms of any size lay claims to developing strategy, in practice I think the industry as a whole employs a range of complimentary and conflicting notions of what strategy looks like.  And the consulting industry, like the finance sector, will tend to recruit and to attract certain kinds of individuals.  Not unlike politics which in the US tends to promote to leadership individuals who can get elected rather than individuals who are genuinely gifted at governing.

What the author doesn’t address, and what in my experience requires “smart” people, is the increasingly complex nature of the strategy challenge.  Unlike past decades in which somewhat formulaic constructs for strategy development allowed folks to crunch a bunch of numbers and slot clients into the appropriate box, strategy development today requires an understanding of a much bigger landscape, genuine fluid and complex systems dynamics, and an ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.

And while the author in fact says that good strategists need to be comfortable with ambiguity, his assertion is that today’s strategists can’t handle it.  In the end I think certain personality types certainly have a tougher time with complexity and ambiguity, but I am not presently convinced that such types are mutually exclusive of high IQs.


HBR post by Roger Martin: “Why Smart People Struggle with Strategy.”

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