"Transforming Corner-Office Strategy into Frontline Action”

by Orit Gadiesh and James L. Gilbert

Harvard Business Review, May, 2001, pp. 73-79  

The authors, Chairman of the Board and a director of the consulting firm Bain & Company, describe their observation that many successful companies have a short, memorable “strategic principle” that aligns actions and decisions within large, diverse organizations.  Examples include:  

Walmart            “Low prices every day”

Dell                   “Be direct”

Southwest          “Meet customers’ short haul travel needs at fares competitive with the cost of automobile Airlines                 travel”

Bain & Co.          “The product of a consultant should be results for clients – not reports.  

As an historical example, they give Admiral Lord Nelson’s rejection of the common practice in his time for admiral’s to try and direct fleets through signal flags.  (For some hint of how poorly this often worked, see this on the life and career of America ’s counterpart to Nelson, John Paul Jones.)  Instead, Nelson leveraged and focused the British superiority in seamanship, training and experience by going into battle with his Captains guided by one principle:  “Whatever you do, get alongside an enemy ship.”  His rule was short, memorable, and understandable for sailors as well as captains.  And it worked, including a great night victory when signals would have been impractical.   

Interestingly enough, even in today’s technologically sophisticated battlefield, where sniper targets a half a world away can be seen and approved at headquarters, the US Army still trains and operates under the doctrine of “Commander’s Intent.”  This requires small teams and leaders far down the chain of command to be able to remember, understand, and apply the statement of purpose for a given action, and align their actions accordingly.  (See Surfing the Edge of Chaos for more.)  

Strategic principles differ from mission statements by being action oriented.  Mission statements are aspirational and inform a company’s culture.  Strategic principles, on the other hand, inform actions and allocations of scarce resources.   

The authors suggest that decentralization, the rate of technological change and its impact on competition, and any type of stress on an organization (rapid growth, decreasing sales, a failed product, etc.) enhance the need for a strategic principle to guide and align actions without the need for central monitoring and control.  They note, however, that such principles are not magic; they require discipline and the willingness to stay the course when the heat is on.  

A few years ago, I read an article, I think in the Wall Street Journal on how Bruce Springsteen’s “Like a Rock” became so much more than an advertising theme for Chevrolet.  It caught the spirit and essence of what engineers, designers, managers felt about Chevy trucks.  It became an incredibly memorable, powerfully emotional strategic principle.  (In one of those irritating things that happen, I didn’t clip this article and haven’t been able to find it.  I’d be most obliged to anyone who can provide me a reference!)  

Application to Schools and School Systems  

If you think schools and school systems just need a new program, a change in the curriculum, or maybe fire a few folks and replace them with others, then you probably don’t find much of importance in this concept.  As for me,  I think it’s important enough that my strategic principle is stated on the home page for this web site and is the signature line for my e-mails.