The Blind Men and the Elephant – Strategy Formation Lessons

Recently I was reading a book Strategy Safari: The Complete Guide Through the Wilds of Strategic Management co-authored by Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel and I came across some interesting ideas and thought it would be great to share them.

I highly recommend the book a “must read” to anyone who is interested in business strategy. In the opening pages, the authors start with a simple story of the blind men and elephant. I believe most of you are familiar with the story.

Six blind men were asked to describe an elephant by touching and feeling its body parts.

The first man touched and felt the broad and sturdy side and described the elephant as a wall, the second man felt the tusk and thought the elephant was a spear, the third man felt the trunk and thought the elephant was a snake, the fourth touched the knee and felt the elephant as tree, the fifth felt the ear and described the elephant as a fan and lastly the sixth felt the tail and thought the elephant was a rope.

None of these blind men was wrong in their analysis and description of the elephant as each of them was perfectly describing the body part he touched and felt. The only problem is that they described part of the bigger picture leading them to believe they had felt the complete elephant. The authors conclude that “we are the blind people and strategy formation is our elephant”.

They argue that we do not get an elephant by adding its parts, rather we have to look at the complete picture (the elephant), but at the same time understand the parts. The same applies to strategy formation within the business.

The authors argue that there are ten schools of strategy and that, although so many articles and books have been published on the subject, most of them have only focused on three; The Design, Planning and Position schools and ignore the other seven schools i.e. Entrepreneurial, Cognitive, Learning, Power, Cultural, Environmental and Configuration schools.

Also, they argue that there are four basic approaches to strategy formation with each approach utilizing two or more schools of thought:

  • Strategic Planning (Planning, Design and Positioning schools)
  • Strategic Visioning (Entrepreneurial, Design, Cultural and Cognitive schools)
  • Strategic Venturing (Learning, Power and Cognitive schools)
  • Strategic Learning (Learning and Entrepreneurial schools)

As I continued reading the book, back in my mind I was thinking, how is this related to our everyday business? It then dawned on me that, the elephant is our entire business with the body parts being the functions i.e. Marketing, Finance, Human resources, IT, Production etc.

All these functions somehow contribute to the overall make-up and success of the organisation but we have somehow elevated one function at the cost of other functions.

For an organisation to achieve its goals and objectives, there should be an understanding by functional managers and their respective employees the overall strategy of the business and how their department plays an important role in achieving those goals.

From the elephant analogy, it can be argued, for example, that the man who didn’t feel the ear but felt the tusk will continue to disagree with the one who felt the ear and thought the elephant is a fan. The opposite is true.

So often, managers and employees have made the mistake of thinking that their department is in competition with another department for resources, time, recognition etc, therefore whatever they say is the correct thing.

For example, the Marketing department always thinks that the Finance department is only there to scupper their projects for example, through budget cuts but what the marketing guys fail to comprehend is that, the finance guys are there to evaluate their proposed projects and provide decision-making support.

A functional manager should not be so much consumed only by the activities and strategies of his/her department and forget the overall organisational goals.

You might be the ear of the elephant for your organisation, being the first point of contact with customers, suppliers, business partners etc and bringing in sales revenue, but that does not mean you have to look down upon your colleague who is the tail, operating from the back office, for example the IT guy.

The fact that the IT guy is not in constant contact with the outside world does not make him less important. He is part of the bigger picture (overall strategy). Just imagine if he is to down his tools today and not show up for work tomorrow, and your system that enables you to communicate with the customers, suppliers, business partners etc crashes. How will you cope without him?

So how can managers ensure that everyone is part of the puzzle?

  • Clearly communicate the vision and mission to every function of the organisation. People have to know and understand what the business stands for and where it is heading. It is like the saying, “How can two people embark on a same journey unless they both agree?”
  • Break down the overall strategy into measurable subgroups that can be split among different functions. This will help different functions understand how they complete the jigsaw.
  • Always affirm to employees that no one department is better than the other to avoid resentment between employees from different functions. There should be constant coordination and interaction among employees and this can be achieved through organised social gatherings or having tea, lunch or dinner together.

Managers and employees need not have a narrower view of the overall picture. They need to look at what is happening around them so that they can become adaptive to the changing environment.

By combining the different efforts and skills of your different business functions, as a business leader, you are destined to grow your business through improved business performance and competitive advantage.

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