Throughout history, the word ‘strategy’ has always been associated with the military, but, as with many other aspects of humanity, technology mechanised war: Sun Tzu could defeat his enemy via the artful use of an oxbow curve, but Operation Overlord could only bulldoze an Allied beachhead into Occupied Europe thanks to an unprecedented marshalling of brute resource.
‘Strategy’ became synonymous with logistics. Sun Tzu’s brilliance, his creativity, took second place to whether the cookhouse could deliver sufficient numbers of fried eggs to the hungry troops.
It was no surprise, then, that when strategy became to be talked about in a business context in the 1950s, it focused on operations, obsessed with time-and-motion, finessing production as if tinkering with process would reveal some kind of scientific truth. It was not strategy in the sense Napoleon would have recognised it, though he would have admired it.
But humanity’s unruly, brilliant child, technology, has overwhelmed us with possibility in its latest – digital – incarnation. There is, literally and literarily, nothing new under the Sun when it comes to strategy: an Amazon search for strategy books returns over 50,000 results. Every strategic technique, every sleight, every wrinkle is now available to everyone, but only in more books than you can read in several lifetimes.
What place does creativity have in modern law firm strategy? Good question.
The remarkable artist, musician and thinker Brian Eno defines art as “anything you don’t have to do”, and ‘strategy’ fits neatly into that definition. In business, if you don’t have a strategy, nobody dies. Like art, you don’t need strategy. In that, at least, law firms can take comfort.
Eno also co-authored Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards containing cryptic remarks or random insights, a tool designed to resolve dilemmas. What Oblique Strategies aims to do, like art, is to create resonance: a wry smile, a puzzled frown or – rarely – one of those light-bulb moments. It aims to connect the dots that process uncovers and refines.
Like art, strategy encompasses process but if all it does is codify process, it is just painting by numbers. Like great art, great strategy will have great craft within it, but it will be bold, unexpected, challenging.
But like art, if your strategy has resonance, you can speak to the heart. If you can speak to the heart, you can garner loyalty, purpose, effort beyond that which is required by contract. You can inspire something in people the finest process will never ignite.
Strategy which fails to resonate is, like bad art, often worse than no strategy at all. At best, it will be competent, inoffensive, immediately forgettable. At worst it will demonstrate clumsiness, carelessness, lack of thought, lack of insight, failure to invest.
The tortoises, with the rabbits now in sight, have the opportunity to reflect on whether, in fact, the art of strategy might be art itself: something beyond process, something visual, textual, experiential, something which touches the heart and which captures the imagination, something which can capture the exquisite subtleties of law; an overture, if you like, to the symphony of business practice.