Stranding sans strategy: State of suffering Sri Lanka

Monday, 4 July 2022 00:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The fuel crisis has fuelled many associated crises creating a sorry state of affairs. Those who are in charge appear to be insensitive to the immense sufferings Sri Lankans have to face. Where is plan B? Where is planning with being proactive to being with? Where is strategy? Today’s column reflects the need to have a strategy with not only formulation, but execution given due respect they deserve. 


“Strategy Safari” by Henri Mintzberg and others is a book that I keenly read a couple of times. Every time I read it, new insights with fresh perspectives were quite common. As a book, it is a bit old but still gold. I referred to it recently to seek clarity with regard to current chaos. It still sheds solid light. 

Strategy is an often confusingly used term that may mean different things to different people. I have seen this happening in Sri Lanka, where crafting and executing strategy is cluttered by myriad jargons. We need clarity and commitment towards formulating and implementing strategy not only at corporate level but most crucially at country level. It is people who design and deliver in driving results. To restore normalcy and revive the economic growth through a multi-sectoral approach with professionalism in action is a timely need for Sri Lanka.

Enter the “Strategy Beast” 

“It seems that we are over-led and under-managed,” says Mintzberg. Many may disagree. Yet, you cannot undermine this candid Canadian veteran. Having contributed to management in proposing ten key managerial roles way back in 1971, he is sharp and sensible in his criticism.

Mintzberg cites a poem written by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) highlighting the possible confusions towards strategy. 

It was six men of Indostan 

To learning much inclined, 

Who went to see the Elephant 

(Though all of them were blind) 

That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.

In essence, each of the blind men interpreted the elephant based on the part each one touched. The one who touch the tail thought that the “elephant is like a rope.” 

And so these men of Indostan 

Disputed loud and long, 

Each of his own opinion 

Exceeding stiff and strong, 

Though each was partly in the right, 

And all were in the wrong!

“We are the blind people and strategy formation is our elephant,” says Mintzberg. “One has grabbed hold of some part or other” and “railed on in utter ignorance” about the rest. We certainly do not get an elephant by adding up its parts. An elephant is more than that. Yet to comprehend the whole we also need to understand the parts.” Good lessons indeed for leaders who have shirked their duties. 

It is obvious that being strategic is of utmost importance in the business context. It essentially shows how “smart” you are in “playing the game.” The roots are from the Greek word ‘strategios’, which means the art of the General. Obviously, it has a military connotation. How a general orders the troops to attack, or to withdraw or to surround the enemy, with the aim of winning the war in mind. A battle front and a business front have a lot in common, particularly with the sky-rocketing competition, globally as well as locally. 

Interestingly, Mintzberg and his co-authors have attempted to draw a parallel to six blind men to ten different approaches to strategy. According to them, none of them is absolutely right or wrong, but each lacks the holistic perspective. Table 1 captures the essence of such ten schools of thought. 

Table 1 amply shows the diversity in the approaches with inevitable strengths and shortcomings. They all speak of strategy either as a plan, pattern, position, perspective, or a ploy. Interestingly, though not popular, Five Ps of strategy can be identified in this sense. 

Do we see the presence of the above approaches in Sri Lanka? In both private and public sectors alike, a strategic plan or a corporate plan (both are interchangeably used to mean the same thing) is considered essential. A multi-coloured spiral-bound thick report is prepared and presented and perhaps that is the end of the story. Whether there is a serious emphasis on achieving the formulated plan is questionable. This is more prevalent in the public sector where the annual audits would check the availability of a strategic plan as a check list item and the implications beyond them is hardly investigated. 

Broad consensus on strategy

While there is great diversity in discovering the “strategy beast,” there is some consensus as well. Mintzberg presents them as areas of agreement. 

1.Strategy concerns both organisation and environment. “A basic premise of thinking about strategy concerns the inseparability of organization and environment. … The organization uses strategy to deal with changing environments.”

Easter Sunday attack as an environmental factor for tourism in Sri Lanka is a bitter and fitting example for the above. The prompt response as an industry in the aftermath of such a disaster got repeatedly shattered with a planetary pandemic and now a created economic crisis. 

2.The substance of strategy is complex. “Because change brings novel combinations of circumstances to the organization, the substance of strategy remains unstructured, unprogrammed, nonroutine, and nonrepetitive….”

In the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world that has come to our doorstep, the complexity of strategy is evident. The struggling Sri Lankan economy with global complications such as escalation of trade disputes, an abrupt tightening of global financial conditions, and intensifying climate risks could further find difficult to reach expected growth targets. 

3.Strategy affects overall welfare of the organization. “… Strategic decisions … are considered important enough to affect the overall welfare of the organization…”

This highlights the need for the involvement of all stakeholders including employees. “The only route to improved performance is by placing human resource at the center of your strategic decision-making,” argues Linda Gratton, in her much-acclaimed book, “Living Strategy.” Needless to say, that the strategies at national level should be formulated in line with a broad inclusive and comprehensive manner. 

4.Strategy involves issues of both content and process. “… The study of strategy includes both the actions taken, or the content of strategy, and the processes by which actions are decided and implemented.”

This is another aspect where we pay over-emphasis on content and less on process. Occurrence of grand events to launch programs at an enormous cost and the process of executing is grossly neglected is a regular feature in Sri Lanka. We see more inauguration ceremonies than opening events showcasing the pomp and pageantry with petty political aims.  

5.Strategies are not purely deliberate. “Theorists … agree that intended, emergent, and realized strategies may differ from one another.”

This is truly relevant to Sri Lanka where the strategies deliberated prior to COVID-19, and subsequent economic crisis have to be revisited. The dismal performance experienced by many organisations have to learn to optimise resources amidst a multitude of constraints. Promoting public transport with proper facilities whilst encouraging electric vehicles could be such emergent strategy in the wake of an escalating fossil fuel crisis. 

6.Strategies exist on different levels. “… Firms have … corporate strategy (What businesses shall we be in?) and business strategy (How shall we compete in each business?)”

This is to be clearly understood by people at different levels of an organisation in cascading down the overall objectives. Whilst, satisfactory awareness and application is visible in the private sector, the presence of the cascading down effect from the national level to the provincial level and then to the divisional secretarial level is questionable. 

Strategy at the helm 

I recall the statement made by the Malaysian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka at the Fire Side Chat with Leading Foreign Envoys held in Colombo recently. He referred to the consistent tourism strategy adapted by Malaysia with one solid slogan for the past 25 years. “Malaysia Truly Asia.” We, in contrast, have changed our slogan almost every year based on the likes and dislikes of those who are at the helm. A lot of food for thought with regard to consistency and continuity. 

Sri Lanka as a nation was supposed to be moving ahead with a “Vision 2025” of being a “country enriched”. The relevant government document stated, “We will do so by transforming Sri Lanka into the hub of the Indian Ocean, with a knowledge-based, highly competitive, social-market economy. We will create an environment where all citizens have the opportunity to achieve higher incomes and better standards of living. To achieve this, we must create the conditions which will generate economic growth with equity. The structural transformation necessary to achieve this vision is currently underway.” Where was the execution? Where were the accountabilities? Where was the progress review? Were there key performance indicators at all? Same pathetic plight befell the widely published strategy document titled “Vitas of Prosperity and Splendour.” 

Way forward 

The sorry state of suffering Sri Lanka requires a sold revisit of strategy. Not a plethora of public utterances but performance towards progress by people in charge. How far have we marched ahead in line with very impressive yet vastly illusive paths? How many times so called “heroes” became “zeros” with incompetence and inaction? Are we sitting on a volcano of human sufferings where the irruption is imminent? A load of food for thought in order to move beyond a jungle of confusion towards crafting and executing strategy. 

(The writer is the immediate past Director of Postgraduate Institute of Management, and can be reached through [email protected], [email protected] or


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