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Strategy as a Little Black Dress

Coco Chanel is credited with the creation of one of the great designs of the twentieth century, the ‘Little Black Dress.’ The lessons from this timeless creation for people embarking on the art of crafting a strategy are profound. Taking its inspiration from the uniforms of domestic help in 1920’s Paris, it quickly established itself as a design of astonishing endurance in the notoriously fickle world of women’s fashion.

Anyone seeking to understand the qualities of a well-designed business strategy would do well to begin by understanding the enduring allure of Chanel’s design. In this short article we explore three key lessons this design can teach those who seek to craft strategy for their organisation.

Simple yet elegant – The most striking aspect of the design of the ‘Little Black Dress’ is its stark simplicity. It does not come in numerous colours instead it offers a black canvas which its wearer tailors to the function in hand – add heels and pearls to dress up, a bright scarf and flats to dress casual. The possibilities are endless.

The same can be said of a well-crafted organisational strategy. It should be parsimonious in that it lacks nothing essential, yet contains nothing extraneous. It will provide direction and clarity of purpose yet it can be shaped to suit the challenges faced by different geographies, functions and departments within. The basic design is fixed but the excitement and colour can be added to suit the situation and tailor the fit for all.

Timeless & Popular – The ‘Little Black Dress’ has remained unchallenged in the ultimate of faddish fields for almost 100 years! Most women have one in their wardrobe and this is simply astonishing. The secret could lie in the transformational properties that lie within the design. When a women slips into her ‘Little Black Dress’ she becomes more of the woman she aspires to be, she is elevated and feels good. The fabric flows and the colours are flattering and the outcome is stunning.

Can the same be said when managers and leaders leave the room after crafting their strategy I wonder? A great test of any strategy is to ask; how does this strategy make you feel? If the response is along the lines of ‘the beatings will continue until the morale improves!’ then perhaps more work is needed. A great strategy should engender excitement and pride, emotions that are often missing from far too many board rooms in my humble opinion. A focus on what makes the organisation great and enduring will help focus the mind and a challenge to everyone to contribute their own personal adornments to the strategy to make it represent their own will help with engagement and alignment.

Create Openings for New Adventures – Like the ‘Little Black Dress’ a great strategy is a stepping off point for new adventures. It should recognise and fit with existing reality, but not be constrained by it. It should look beyond the current issues horizon towards a bright, compelling and attractive future that makes people look forward to the journey ahead.

Strategic stories should echo the familiar whilst at the same time providing the chance to script some new stories that are fresh and exciting. Your strategic story should make people feel confident, open to new adventures and ready to find something special just around the corner.

If a ‘Little Black Dress’ can do this why can’t your business strategy?

Thanks to ‘Strategy Bites Back – Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, Lampel and Jeanne Liedtka’