NGO Academy Keynote Recap: “Strategy without a Plan? How to Thrive in Unpredictable Times” with Prof. Martin Kornberger

On Wednesday, June 5, the seventh NGO Academy Keynote united more than 120 strategy enthusiasts to get inspired by Martin Kornberger, Professor of Ethics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, on new ways of strategizing .

The philosopher and award-winning author began his talk by challenging traditional notions of strategic planning, highlighting two contrary schools of thought: One school believes in a stable set of strategic tools. The other end of the spectrum is echoed by Peter Drucker’s famous dictum, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, this view underscores the dominance of organisational culture over rigid strategic plans. Juxtaposing these two extremes, he set the scene for his intervention: Is there a meaningful way to plan with goal-orientation yet allowing flexibility along the way?

Amidst social transformations, geopolitical turmoil, environmental challenges, technological disruptions and economic shifts, Kornberger noted that strategy has remained largely unchanged – top-down, predictive, linear and communicated through lengthy plans. “We still create and formulate strategies as we did 50 years ago…but the world is a different one”.

A New Language for Strategy

Kornberger proposed a new framework for strategy, centered on three key ideas:

#1 The North Star

Organisations need a general direction to ensure everyone is aligned and understands the purpose behind their actions. This is not a specific goal but a clearly defined guiding principle.

#2 Define your crux

The crux represents the critical, most important point or focus that changes over time. It requires framing, imagining and reframing to address the root causes of the issue or concern that you need to tackle. Strategy is about contextualising rather than merely simplifying them.

#3 Mission-type tactics

We need an agreement on the collective intent (North Star) and the primary obstacle (Crux) whilst providing a distributed set of actors maximum room to maneuver on the ground. This approach allows decentralised decision-making, grants teams maximum flexibility and promotes local experimentation and learning. Drawing from Clausewitz’s military staretegies, Kornberger emphasized a “loosely coupled – highly aligned” organisational design, leading through context rather than control, and fostering a feedback culture.

Case Study: Netflix

These principles were illustrated through the evolution of Netflix since its founding in 1997. The company’s central problem or crux shifted over time from “How to send DVDs safely by mail and increase rental frequency?” to “How to produce creative content for a global audience?”. Today, Netflix has over 200 million subscribers in more than 190 countries, demonstrating the efficacy of this adaptive strategic approach.

“Our dispersed decision-making model has become a foundation of our culture and one of the main reasons we have grown and innovated so quickly” – Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix

A Call for Simplicity

Kornberger advocated for a simpler, more flexible language for strategy, “I believe, we need to take a step back as academics, clean the desk and find a new, simpler language for strategy.”  

  • Why: Combine collective direction with local agility.

  • What: View strategy as an ongoing, recursive learning process rather than a linear plan.

  • How: Connect the North Star, the Crux and local actions rather than exerting top-down authority.

He concluded with a thought-provoking quote from Coldplay: “I’d rather be a comma than a full stop,” underscoring the importance of continuous evolution and adaptation.

Interactive Session

The keynote was followed by interactive brainstorming sessions in break-out rooms, where participants discussed how this new approach could transform strategic thinking within their organisations. The ideas generated were then shared and debated in a panel discussion.

About Martin Kornberger

Martin Kornberger is a Professor for Ethics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, a Visiting Professor at Stockholm School of Economics and Adjunct Professor at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. His work has been published across a range of disciplines including management and organization theory (Academy of Management Discoveries), strategy (Long Range Planning) and sociology (Sociological Review). He writes textbooks and monographs, most recently, Strategies for Distributed and Collective Action: Connecting the Dots (Oxford University Press, 2022) and Systemaufbruch – Strategie in Zeiten radikaler Unsicherheit (Murmann, 2023).