The Nine Schools of Strategic Thinking

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“Strategy formation is judgmental designing, intuitive visioning, and emergent learning; it is about transformation as well as perpetuation; it has to include analyzing before and programming after as well as negotiating during …” – Henry Mintzberg

Throughout time, a large amount of thinkers have addressed the issues related to business strategy systems from many different angles. To a large extent the difference in perspective can be understood from a wide range of base disciplines on which the strategy arguments are based, like for example economy, biology, anthropology, philosophy and politicology. Mintzberg emphasises this broad diversity of perspectives in the current debate and has identified nine main distinct schools in strategic thinking. Three of these schools – Design, Planning and Positioning School - are said to be prescriptive in nature and the other six schools – Entrepreneurial, Cognitive, Learning, Political, Cultural and Environmental School - are descriptive in nature.

As with any classification, there is a certain danger in the sense that trying to put rich individual ideas and concepts into a limited number of ‘boxes’ may lead to oversimplification. However, this classification of strategy schools does contribute to a deeper understanding of how strategy systems are perceived in a limited number of mainstreams of thinking. With a (corporate) strategy system being defined as the set of deliberate or non-deliberate processes that determines the focus, composition, scale and scope of corporate activities, in order to sustain distinctive strategic advantages over time [Kemp, 2003], the following concise review of the nine main schools of strategy thinking provides with a rich diversity of angles on how strategies are shaped, initiated, negotiated, formulated, implemented and improved – in other words, how strategy systems function.

The Design School – Strategy Systems as Processes of Conception

According to the design school, strategy systems are prescribed to be deliberate in nature and strategy formation is regarded as a process of conscious thought. Responsibility for that control and consciousness must rest with the chief executive officer, who is thereby the main strategist. Moreover, the model of strategy formation should be kept as simple and informal as possible. Strategies should be one of a kind, where the best ones result from a process of individualised design. The strategy systems thus should be regarded as a true design process, which is complete when strategies appear fully formulated. Thereby strategies should be made explicit and they have to be kept simple. Finally, only after these unique, full blown, explicit, and simple strategies are fully formulated can they be implemented.

The Planning School - Strategy Systems as Formal Processes

According to the planning school, with its roots in systems thinking and cybernetics, strategy systems are prescribed to be the controlled, conscious processes of formal planning, decomposed into distinct steps, each delineated by checklists and supported by techniques. Responsibility for the overall process typically rests with the chief executive in principle; however responsibility for its execution rests with staff planners in practice. In comparison with the design school, resulting strategies appear from this process much more full blown and detailed. Strategies are made explicit so that they can be implemented through detailed attention to objectives, budgets, programs and operating plans of various kinds. The thinking of the planning school has led organisations, mainly in the seventies and early eighties, to build up significant staff departments of analysers and planners. This has broad with it an amount of disadvantages in practice, such as [according to Mintzberg, 1998]: staff departments taking over the process; the process being dominated by the staff; planning systems being virtually designed to produce no results; planning...
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