Strategy That’s Off the Chart

Massimo Maoret revisits the timeless wisdom of Igor Ansoff

15/07/2014 Barcelona

Massimo Maoret
Massimo Maoret, IESE Assistant Professor of Strategic Management

The man considered to be the father of strategic management, H. Igor Ansoff, who passed away 12 years ago this July 14, left his mark with business research that was not only academically rigorous but also directly applicable to managers. In this sense, he would have made a welcome contributor to IESE Insight, writes Massimo Maoret, an assistant professor in the Strategic Management Department of IESE, in the latest issue of the magazine.

Born in Russia in 1918, Ansoff trained as an engineer and a mathematician. As a thinker, he introduced the world to seminal management concepts such as "competitive advantage," "organizational capability" and the "Ansoff matrix" -- his product/market matrix for mapping growth alternatives. He specialized in the behavior of complex organizations in turbulent environments, looking for determinants of success -- a specialty that would only grow in relevance over the years.

Before becoming a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in 1963, Ansoff worked as a general manager at Lockheed, the U.S. aerospace company. This practical experience had a deep impact on his later work in academia.

Ansoff investigated whether the problems and challenges that he faced at Lockheed were unique or generalizable, taking into account the business environment and functional inputs, such as marketing and R&D. By borrowing the scientific method’s tools of theoretical generalizability and empirical validation from his engineering and mathematical background, he sought to structure, model and formalize his business findings in a scientific manner. He essentially opened a new field -- strategic management -- and as one of the founding editors of the Strategic Management Journal, he gave it an audience.

Ansoff’s approach to strategy stands apart for two reasons. First, he focused on the needs of the end user -- namely, practicing managers. His theoretical models pulled off the twin feat of being as general as possible -- applicable to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike -- while also being practical, with his rigorous theories accompanied by summary tables, flowcharts and checklists. He never lost sight of helping managers navigate the relationships connecting his concepts, and then using that understanding to take action.

Second, Ansoff injected a strong organizational flavor into his views on strategy and its implementation. For instance, he studied how to overcome organizational resistance to strategic change and analyzed the role of organizational power and politics in defining and implementing strategy.

He was a prolific author of books and articles throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Throughout that time, he never lost touch with the real business world in all its complexity. And during those decades, there was plenty of complexity and industrial change.

His 1976 book, From Strategic Planning to Strategic Management, first outlined a "strategic success hypothesis," which he elaborated on in subsequent works. The idea was that success could be realized when "strategic aggressiveness" and "general management capability responsiveness" were aligned with the prevailing "environmental turbulence" level -- from 1 ("repetitive") to 5 ("surpriseful").

No doubt, many industries today are experiencing turbulence level 5, and his call for creative strategies coupled with flexible management in such an environment remains just as applicable to today’s generation of business leaders.

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