Some Thoughts on Strategy: When Insiders Might Know Best

Last week I picked up the MIT Sloan Management Review Fall 2016 issue while waiting for dinner. I turned to the last page and read an article by Teppo Felin entitled: “When Strategy Walks Out the Door.” What was really important was the need to include employees in both strategy and execution.

Teppo Felin is a professor of strategy at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, UK. His article cites examples of employees who were disenfranchised at their place of employment and then went on to build successful companies out of rejected ideas.

Outsiders vs. Insiders

The thesis of Felin’s article is that senior management at companies often hire outsiders to develop strategies rather than turning to the insiders—the people who might really understand the company and the markets in order to develop effective strategy.

At Simon Associates Management Associates (SAMC), we fully support Mr. Felin’s position. As a matter of fact, we are often hired to help companies find new markets or develop new strategies. However, we are very careful NOT to take the lead but rather, to act as the facilitator in developing strategies. I think this is a very important differentiation, illustrating how we view our work with clients. We always tell management, “Do not outsource your eyes!”

A Book About Strategy

My business partner and wife, Dr. Andi Simon, in her book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” explains that insiders are key to developing a new or turnaround strategy. And that your new strategy can be right in front of you. She goes on to share seven case studies in which insiders accomplished astounding business transformations. And while you can hire outsiders (like Simon Associates), it is usually the insiders with the actual institutional knowledge that really need to be crafting the strategies, perhaps with help from an outsider.

To illustrate this, she tells the story of “acres of diamonds,” a famous lecture given by Russell Herman Cornwell, an American Baptist minister and founder of Temple University. The story is of a farmer who sells his farm to go look for diamonds, loses all his money, comes home and to his dismay, learns that the new owner of his farm had discovered diamonds on the property. The moral? What you are looking for might be right under your nose! You just need to open your eyes and see it. Yes, your own people, those that understand the organization, might very likely be the best equipped to find the best solutions or strategies—your “acres of diamonds.”

So if that is the case, why hire outsiders who don’t know your business nor your market? Now you might be asking, why would a consultant who helps organizations develop strategies write about why you should develop strategies internally? Easy, because at SAMC we help organizations develop strategies themselves. Trust me, if the organization or rather, the people in the organization, own that strategy, it is much easier to accomplish execution.

Some Simple Tools to Find Your “Acres of Diamonds”

In “On the Brink,” Andi shares “easy-to-understand, “simple to use” anthropological methods and tools, including getting out of your office to systematically watch and listen to what is really happening in your business. This is in keeping with what we believe at SAMC, which is that helping organizations develop a strategy is a multi-step process starting with visual exploring. That means taking senior executives out into the marketplace or sitting on the company’s phone lines to understand what users are really saying, not getting filtered information via a third party.

We also encourage organizations to piece together information they already have and create stories from it. It is those anecdotes that often trigger revelations. And who better to capture these than an insider.

Finally, your organization’s real challenge might be for leaders to create a place or an environment where ideas can come together; where innovation can take place. This addresses the issue of culture.  Because if the culture does not encourage innovation, it might be difficult to come up with new strategies that differ from where you are today.

So, in summary, when working with companies that need or want to change, we always start with the internal organization because we believe that ownership of a new strategy from within can be more readily embraced and makes for a much easier execution. It is at the intersection of these new ideas that innovation, change and new strategies take place.

Could We Help Your People Develop New Strategies?

At SAMC, we help organizations grow and thrive amidst today’s changing times. A big component of how we do that is corporate anthropology. The theory and tools of anthropology help you see changes taking place in your industry and adapt accordingly so your organization can grow and thrive. Contact us for a free consultation; we’d love to talk with you.


Want to Know More? Download our Free White Paper.

Applying anthropological methodologies to your organization enables you to explore the most persistent questions about your business, from your customers and their needs to your sales processes and value proposition. This in turn allows your people to create effective strategies. Click on the button below to download our white paper “What Is Corporate Anthropology?


Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants  

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