I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 on Strategy

I am serialising and augmenting my 2016 book “The Music of Business” in this series. The Music of Business examines business leadership through the twin lenses of MBA thinking augmented by insights from the field of music.

In this article, we examine the parallels between the Australian rock band AC / DC and Business.  We offer live events on topics such as this via our Business and Music masterclasses on a worldwide basis for full immersion in the topic. A limited-edition of The Music of Business book is available direct from the author’s basement studio … just contact me.  Here we examine what U2 can teach us about strategy. U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is obviously not about business strategy. Rather a long-term search for a part-time lover by the Irish crooner Bono, or possibly a call to more creativity from the business guru Edward de Bono! Nonetheless, this does not stop me pointing out what Henry Mintzberg observed, that business strategy is often an ‘emergent’ function of business, where strategic plans are seen as flexible templates to guide a general line of action, but not recipes to be followed ad nauseum.

Here are five other critical strategic issues that the modern business strategist should be aware of. Unfortunately, U2 have not covered these points in their songs!

  1. Strategic planning is no longer a head office function in most companies. Strategy is distributed and is the responsibility of everyone. That does not mean to say that chaos should reign. To achieve a sense of alignment in a complex adaptive system requires excellent communications, top-down, bottom-up and laterally. This is especially true of companies who are exposed to their customers via the internet where strategy may be partly informed by customer perception/desire. To read more on the science of complexity and chaos, refer to James Gleick’s work in this area and Professor Charles Handy’s book “The Age of Unreason” for a lighter viewpoint.
  2. Sustainable competitive advantage arises from differences between firms, not similarities. Thus, if you are in close proximity to a competitor in terms of products, services, geography and so on, one strategic option is to create a difference that creates space between you. This may, of course, mean that you compete better. It may simply open up the market in ways that means everyone can gain a share.
  3. Foresight is better than hindsight. In order to know before the competition is going to head you off at the pass, we need dynamic approaches to strategy, rather than static use of models, which tell you ‘what happened’, rather like driving a car using the rear view mirror. Approaches such as ‘Scenario Modelling’, ‘War Gaming’ and ‘Projective Methodologies’ to help companies pre-empt decisions by competitors and in a number of other ways to seize advantage. To read more on the art of war for executives, read Donald Krause’s work on Sun Tzu’s seminal thinking in this area.
  4. In some cases, strategy is all about leveraging a firm’s tacit knowledge and processes, which may not be easily copied or appropriated. Put simply, taking advantage of your collective brainpower rather than the physical assets you own. Exemplars of this approach to strategy would include Apple and Facebook. In particular, Apple has a culture that enables it to limit leakage of its proprietary knowledge, even though its people leave the offices at the end of every day. However, designing and implementing a strategy to harness brainpower is simpler to write down than it is to put into practice.
  5. Companies need to be continuously sensing weak signals of change in the business environment, so that your company may head the competition off by staying one step ahead. These days such ‘weak signals’ of impending change may come from staff who are in the customer’s environment or even from the customers themselves through approaches such as ‘crowdsourcing’.

So, Bono’s lyric, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, reframed using de Bono’s lateral thinking approach in the context of business strategy, may not be such a bad thing. If strategy is a continuous and constant process of readjustment, the hunger to learn rapidly and respond to ever-changing market needs is a core competence. Who would have thought it possible to gain so much business wisdom from just eight words of a pop song?

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Peter Cookhttp://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/
PETER leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to twelve books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham, and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. His blends his three passions are science, business, and music into unique inspiring keynotes based on the art of storytelling. His early life involved leading innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for HIV/AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia teaching MBAs and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music. Peter won a prize for his work from Sir Richard Branson after his mother claimed he was a Virgin birth. He now writes for Virgin.com.
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