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Re-Framing Strategic Thinking:

The Research – Aims and Outcomes


This paper is a précis of the research findings reported in French (2009g, 2009h, 2009i) and is based on the research aim that was developed during the literature review (reported in French (2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d) and further refined and melded into the thematic concerns and research questions using the Action Research (AR) methodology reported in French (2009e).


When I first read Hamel’s, (1998) comment that “Anyone who claims to be a strategist should be intensely embarrassed by the fact that the strategy industry doesn’t have a theory of strategy creation! It doesn’t know where bold, new value-creating strategies come from. There’s a gaping hole in the middle of the strategy discipline” (Hamel, 1998, p. 10) it provoked a reaction that led me to re-think my whole view of the strategic process. I had also read Mintzberg’s (1994) ‘Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning’, and many of the concepts expressed had also disturbed me. Mintzberg (1994) argues that strategy ‘emerges’, and that the formalisation of strategic planning leads to the creation of a plan not to the creation of a strategy.


Figure 1 shows Mintzberg’s (1994) diagrammatic view of how strategy emerges in some unknown fashion outside the boundaries of the formal planning process. Mintzberg did not at this time provide a mechanism for strategic emergence.


Figure 1—Strategic Emergence.


Source: Mintzberg et al. (1998:12).


In recent years there has been a growing body of opinion amongst scholars in the field of strategic business management that some of the central tenets of classical strategic theory are no longer appropriate (Thompson, 1967; Westley & Mintzberg, 1989; Bettis et al., 1992; Whittington, 1993; Mintzberg, 1994; Hamel & Prahalad, 1995; Camillus, 1996; Fuller, 1996; Hamel, 1996; Kouzmin et al., 1997; Mainwaring, 1997; Mintzberg et al., 1998; Kouzmin & Jarman, 1999; Parker, 2002). Strategic theory has become so fragmented and complex, with views as to what represents strategy often being diametrically opposed, that strategy or strategic thinking has been replaced by an operational focus. In Part I of this series, I draw the conclusion that the problem for strategists in the 21st century is that their thinking is shackled to the equilibrium assumption of closed systems and that a radical change to open systems thinking, especially complex self-adapting systems is required. I instigated an AR programme (French, 2009e) which starts with a Notion in the Practitioner’s Mind that there is a need for change.


Directions for Future Research

Mainwaring (1997) believes that luck and chance play an important role in business success and that the market itself picks the winners and losers. He suggests that, during the last ten years, ideas about strategy have largely fallen into disrepute and the change in emphasis from strategic planning to strategic management is evidence of this. Although from an earlier period, Andrews (1983) does not agree. Rather than dismiss strategic planning as irrelevant, he argues it should be pushed into a new phase of development, with greater emphasis on identifying and extending the unique capability of the company and its special strengths. I am in full accord with Andrews. In an attempt to achieve this, I concluded French (2009d) with a description of what the ‘developed’ strategic planning methodology might look like.


The system would be a hybrid mixing concepts from two different philosophical paradigms—cybernetic and complex—and from two different epistemological paradigms—Modernist/Postmodernist and Critical. It would have the following characteristics:


1. It would be founded in a Critical (CMS) epistemological paradigm.

2. It would not be prescriptive but based on questioning.

3. It could be universally applicable to all small businesses.

4. As a foundation it would follow the basic principles of the Design School.

5. It would add ideas from the Resource-based School, the Learning School, and from Complexity Theory.

6. It would be formal and sophisticated but remain short and specific.

7. Strategy would be created in an emergent process.


The Compact Big Business Strategic Thinking system has exactly these characteristics.


The Modernist development of ideas in the field of strategy has led to the creation of several schools of thought. Some of these have found themselves criticised and out of favour both with academics and with practitioners. However, all have contributed to the knowledge base of strategists and the subject will continue to grow as strategy theorists develop and practise their ideas. The problem of how management theorists and strategists in particular develop the opportunities offered by the complexity and CMS paradigms will be of most interest.


Horkheimer’s (1982, 1993) concept is that a Critical Theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria:


1. It must explain what is wrong with current social reality,


2. identify the actors to change it, and


3. provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.


Any truly critical theory of society “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkheimer, 1993, p. 21) to transform contemporary capitalism into a consensual form of social life. For Horkheimer, a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic; to make it such that “all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus” in a rational society (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 249–250).


This paper is the report of a Critical study of strategic emergence and anti-managerialism in small firms. It is not a ‘grand’ critical theory (Bohman, 1999a, 1999b) but specifically related to a new method of strategy creation. In response to Horkheimer’s (1993) three criteria, an extensive explanation of what is wrong with current social reality in strategic management has been canvassed throughout this series. The actors to achieve this are the current proponents of CMS who must continue to criticise the current epistemological paradigm and pedagogical ideologies. Clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation, with regard to the strategic processes in small firms, have been extensively canvassed.


This study has had as its object “human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkheimer, 1993, p. 21)—of transforming contemporary capitalism, in the form of Modernist strategic planning theories, into a consensual form of social life, in the form of an inclusive, non-hierarchical methodology for small firm strategy generation. For Horkheimer, a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic, so that “all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus” (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 249–250). For Habermas (1971, 1981), the fundamental requirements for any Critical study are: consensus, universalism, rational criticism, real democracy, and co-operation for the emancipation of practical and transformative activity. These are the fundamental characteristics of this Critical study. The challenge for researchers will be to develop Critical theories to replace the current dominance of Modernist epistemology in strategic management. At some stage in the future all management ideas must be reframed.

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