Sunday, 1st August 2021 • Rear Admiral John Kingwell
HAVING HAD THE PRIVILEGE of leading a college that focused on preparing senior officers, officials and business leaders for strategic leadership roles, I begin this article on a controversial note by stating that both government and business leaders often do not have the time and, in many cases, the skills to develop and implement effective strategy. Indeed, many organisations use the word strategy when they actually mean important or urgent – and without the right focus, analysis and approach no matter how important a message or plan is, it will fail to deal with today’s challenges as well as opportunities.
In this article, I will outline why the challenges of the twenty-first century demand that both business and government act strategically and then explore how providing structure to that strategic activity can pay real dividends.
Today’s global drivers are well captured by the Strategic Trends Programme produced for the whole of government and freely available by the Development and Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) – effectively the MOD’s strategic think tank. The key trends of demography, urbanisation, climate change, resources and technology and their impact out to 2050 have been well studied and described. What is often less considered is the cumulative effect of these drivers in terms of global and regional impact. For instance, the combination of population growth, urbanisation and climate change (including rising sea levels) could, by 2045 put up to 130 million additional people at risk of flooding and extreme weather events – three quarters of them in Asia. We can expect to see urbanisation and population growth accelerating the development of mega cities. With proper planning and preparation in the developing world, these could become major catalysts for economic growth, but without it could become centres for poverty and social unrest.
Population growth, when combined by stresses to food and water supplies as well as being exacerbated by climate change – could result in higher numbers of humanitarian disasters and increased competition for natural resources. While in some countries the challenge will be around population growth and youth bulges, in others it will population decline and an increasingly aged society. Geopolitics will be impacted as the global economic centre of gravity continues to shift east and China becomes the preeminent global power, and India the world’s most populous nation. The growing potential of Africa, the opening of Artic Sea routes and an increasingly energy independent United States may all have significant implications.
Alongside climate change, the trend whose impact is already very apparent is technology. The internet of things, big data, processing power, automation and AI see us entering a new Information Age that may offer mitigation for the other global challenges that I have described and real opportunities across society – including work, leisure time and medicine. However, like all these trends, there will also be challenges, not least around how the virtual world impacts on individual identity and how we manage the human machine interface.
How we deal with these challenges – like climate change and COVID 19 – is not a matter for short term or national planning, but long-term thinking on an international and perhaps global basis. The pace and scale of change being described is such that a business-as-usual approach will not enable nations or business to seize the opportunities that emerge – nor cope with the challenges. Hence the need for innovation – to change, develop and modernise – but this needs to be underpinned by a clear vision of where we want our organisation to be in the future and how we get there. Here are some tools or guiderails for making strategy useful in any setting.
The first key step in the process is understanding both the problem and the strategic context. What are we trying to achieve; where do we want to be (in government terms what are our policy goals), what is the strategic context; how do the commercial and/or global trends affect us, and what do we know about our stakeholders and competitors? In analysing the other actors, it is vital to be able to place yourself in their shoes and avoid simplistic stereotypes or impressions. This understanding will greatly aid assessment of how they may react to your strategy and messaging – often best supported by the creation of a red team to challenge your own plans and assumptions.
An important element of this analysis is an open mindedness to see your own organisation or nation through the eyes of others and accepting at the outset that there will be areas for improvement and weakness.