How should a business strategist think?

Manish Shah is the former president of Midwest Law Printing in Chicago. He also worked at Intel, PwC and Motorola. He has an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and a MS in Computer Science from Illinois Institute of Technology. He can be reached at

By Manish Shah
The goal of a business strategist should be to develop a strategy that has the highest probability of success. There are some guiding principles that a strategist can follow in order to achieve this goal.

First, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success in a dynamic and competitive environment. This should be welcome news because if a success formula did exist, there would be no role for a business strategist.

Secondly, a strategist should recognize the business world is uncertain. Therefore, a strategic decision is generally made under uncertain conditions. This uncertainty arises due to reactions of competitors, changes in customer requirements and advances in technology.

Thirdly, as former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has emphasized, life is about odds, chances and tradeoffs. So a strategist should internalize the fact that the best he can do is find ways to improve the odds of success.

Fourth principle is that strategists need to decouple actions from outcomes. In a dynamic and uncertain environment, good choices can lead to bad outcomes and  vice versa. As Michael Mauboussin illustrates in his book, More Than you  Know, the 2×2 matrix for decision making looks like  this:

Process for making
decisions outcome

Mauboussin emphasizes that if a good decision making process is consistently followed, good outcomes will outnumber bad outcomes over the long haul.

Fifth principle is that strategists should try and find a good balance between the short-term and the long-term. Take the example of a driver speeding down the highway  in a car. If he looks just beyond the hood, he is going to have a hard time anticipating what is coming. On the other hand, if he looks too far ahead, he looses the ability to navigate the car safely. This dilemma can be solved by approaching strategy development like a chess player. A chess player only thinks a few moves ahead, develops options and revises them based on changing conditions, studies his competition thoroughly and seeks small advantages that turn into big wins.

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