Grasping Essentials When You’re NOT the Expert

My friend Ken is in a strategic initiative leadership role at a large energy company. He found himself in an uncomfortable position, which involved decisions about creating and managing SAP data. His manager responded to Ken with the instruction to “dig in and learn it” and move the initiative towards its milestones. The decisions were technical and had high impact. Not surprisingly, Ken felt stress. Ken resolved the stress by recruiting a technical lead who was more expert with the challenges and qualified to make the decisions.

This incident is a sample of a larger problem. What can a person do when he needs to quickly grasp essential knowledge and there is little opportunity to delegate the decision to an expert? This article provides you a technique for improving the effectiveness of your learning of specialist knowledge.

Mastery of Topics versus “Good Enough”

Textbook learning starts with chapters on the fundamentals. For example, medical training typically considers human anatomy as a fundamental. Then progressively more sophisticated stuff that is layered on top of the fundamentals. The learner’s job is to structure and retain this knowledge. If the stakes are high – again, think about medicine – we expect mastery as the standard.

Real-world learning is usually some sort of problem solving using “muddling through” as a strategy. That means that the learner grabs some bits and pieces of knowledge and applies it to see what works. Sometimes, they will observe others solving the same or related problems.

This real-world muddling approach is typical: there isn’t time to “go back to school.” Specialists understand the specifics, and can work with the jargon and deeper layers of meaning. Management generalists like Ken delegate and defer where they can. But when it comes to integration of the components, they are left to make the best decisions that they can and hope for the best.

Might there be a way to apply real-world learning styles in a way that allows for individual mastery and improved communications?

Faster Learning, Real-World Style

Example Concept Map Interpreting Merchandising Functional Strategy for Strategic InitiativeI discovered a solution that finds a middle ground between formalized textbook-style learning and muddling through.  This approach, works by asking focus questions and constructing propositions. The result is a hierarchical concept map that renders a scaffold of relevant knowledge. Please review the nearby graphic, and you will get a sense of that statement. (I explained the story behind this graphic in this earlier article.)

To relate to Ken’s example, the first step for Ken might be to ask himself this question: “What do I already know about SAP data?” His answers might be: I know “this” and “this” and “this,” jotting the specifics on paper or perhaps on sticky notes.  The nearby graphic shows what that concept map would look like.

My Knowledge of SAP DataConcept maps are extraordinarily valuable because they include the linking words, in this case the linking word is “includes.”  The linkages show a relationship between concepts that we call propositions.

Experts Knowledge of SAP dataAs a next step, Ken could go to people more knowledgeable than he (there are thousands of SAP experts available, and Ken’s project employed several dozen SAP consultants) and ask a question such as, “What are the most important things to know about SAP data, in the context of our strategic initiative?”  As he organizes what he learns (more instances of “this” and “this), he continues to elaborate what he knows.  It is an organized knowledge structure, perhaps more accurately called a knowledge scaffold.

Focus Questions

In the prior example, I used two different focus questions to generate the concept maps.  Note this essential point,

The purpose of a concept map is to help answer a focus question.

The relationship between the two is what makes this a powerful technique for learning, and thus a useful strategic tool.

As I practiced my first concept maps, I found that I would often just muddle for a while and then realize I was wasting time. Then I would try to find a focus question that organized my muddled set of propositions.

Researchers validate my experience. Canas and Novak, in a review of the technique, reaffirm that it is a powerful learning tool.  But they note that, “some difficulties seem to be pervasive.” The two most-relevant difficulties (for practitioners like me and you) are:

  1. Developing skill in constructing and structuring propositions
  2. Developing skill in asking good focus questions that relate to the concept map

I recommend that you follow the model suggested for Ken. The first focus question to ask is, “What do I already know about this topic?” Construct your propositions with the word “includes.”

Develop a second concept map by asking the experts this question to generate a deeper level of understanding, “What is essential to know about this topic?”  Here is an enlightening twist, “What are the seven most-important things to know about this topic?” By limiting the number of propositions at the high level, you learn which things are truly essential. Then deepen the concept map to understand those concepts that are most important to the high-level essentials.

Conclusion

Ken’s situation is common in strategic initiatives. It is related to two similar strategic initiative challenges:

  • How much subject matter knowledge should you personally attempt to grasp? As a leader, understanding the technical challenges at a level that assures that the program is making quality decisions.
  • How can you facilitate sharing of expert knowledge to others? Application of expertise and proprietary knowledge is at the heart of any strategy.  Communications is an essential leadership task.  The challenge is to conveying appropriate technical information quickly and effectively.

I heartily endorse concept maps as a useful tool and hope you will practice and build skill. They are deceptively simple when you see a good one that has been developed by someone else. I encourage you to persist.

Have you used concept maps and focus questions? What were the results?

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Agile Thinking, Habits, and Strategic Initiative Leadership: Transcending the Buzz for Useful Insights

agile business innovationThis article is composed of three chapters, all dealing with an emerging term, “agile thinking.”  Perhaps you have had similar experiences in your strategic initiatives.

Chapter 1: A Curious Conversation

Recently, a leader of strategic initiative stated, “we don’t need to embrace strategic thinking because we are agile thinkers.” My ears perked up, and I asked a question, “The purpose of strategic thinking is fairly well established (it is to create insights that are useful in crafting strategy). What is the purpose of agile thinking?”

His answer was that agile is about being creative: It is about being flexible, being focused on providing value, being innovative, and doing things fast. His answer was about “being” and “values,” it was not about thinking.  I tried asking the question differently, but made no progress with this individual: He clearly had not thought deeply about his “agile thinking” declaration. So, I let it drop.

(As an aside, the strategic initiative floundered and this program manager was replaced.  One reason for the situation was the manager was focused more on the agile methodology rather than creating business value.)

Later, I wondered if anyone has put effort into clarifying “agile thinking?” Is there a definitive answer, or least a thoughtful reflection?

I went to Google’s search engine. There are a handful of entries on agile thinking, but no responses to the more constrained search on “purpose of agile thinking.”  So here is my conclusion,

In present use, agile thinking means to embrace the “agile values” declared by agile software evangelists, those values being things like flexibility, speed, customer responsiveness, change, and good engineering.

The word “values” is appropriate, as every individual values things differently. Values are both situational and subjective. The value of speed in projects is generally desirable, but that value sometimes is in conflict with safety or productivity or quality. The value of flexibility is also generally desirable, but comes in conflict with systems integrity or cost.  The more thoughtful agilists will quickly clarify that they prefer their values but acknowledge the importance of those that seem to be in conflict.

I interpret, then, that most authors are encouragers, “Think about agile values.” The alternative meaning of agile thinking is less prevalent, “think (cogitate) with agility.”  The fundamental prescriptions are these: don’t become habitual in your thinking or behavior. Don’t be burdened by the past: try new things, experiment, innovate. Taking all the the agilists are saying, it seems to me that:

As a cognitive process, there are no practical differences
between agile thinking and creative thinking.

Do you agree with my conclusions?

Chapter 2: Corning’s Strategic Initiative: Agile Business Innovation

Last summer, I was asked to review an article in Strategy + Business, The Gorilla of Agile Business Innovation. Corning has a rather interesting initiative underway. The article tells us that:

“In the fall of 2012, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wendell P. Weeks started telling the Corning innovation team, led by Chief Technology Officer David L. Morse, that the company’s established RD&E [Research, Development, and Engineering] practices were neither good enough nor fast enough. Recognizing intensifying global competition and Wall Street’s never-ending demands for higher profits, Weeks began calling for “agile” innovation—an approach that would enable Corning to respond immediately to the needs of customers, as it famously did in 2007 when Steve Jobs asked the company for a better cover glass for the wave of Apple iPhones about to be launched. The company is currently dispatching its Ph.D. researchers to proactively develop more big opportunities.”

The remainder or the article tells us that Corning is practicing things that are encouraged by agilists:

  • It intends to develop more intellectual property and commercialize it faster
  • It is connecting its best scientists directly to the customer
  • It is thinking about risk differently: stepping outside of established process where there is  customer opportunity
  • Its managers are practicing servant leadership; removing barriers for the project teams
  • It is practicing more cross functional collaboration

My client asked me to use the Corning example to help its audience of product developers to understand agile. Using the “translation” that agile thinking means embrace agile values, I developed the nearby graphic.

I intended to show agile business innovation as a vision, supported by four pillars, each pillar holding a conceptual underpinning. From right to left, the explanation is:

  • Agile thinking is about encouraging and appreciating value, speed, and flexibility.
  • Agile thinking (again, agile being a set of values) encourages experts to communicate better and to recognize mistakes earlier. Hence, tools like scrum, iteration, and burn down charts have emerged.
  • In order to face current and emerging competitive challenges, business design and redesigned themselves. How? They leveraging certain resources that are “strategic” in their nature and effect.
  • Strategic thinking is about encouraging relevant and meaningful insights to the design of strategy.

This graphic stimulated good discussion and understanding. By clarifying that we are talking about values, we can then turn our attention to the appropriateness of the values to the situation. We can design an approach that best maximizes our chances of success.

Chapter 3: Agile Thinking and Habits Overcoming Status Quo Thinking

During my Google research on agile thinking, I found a set of thoughts from Ken Schwaber titled, Scrum is Hard and Disruptive. He twice points to the problem of habits, writing that “The most serious impediments to using Scrum are habits” and “These are inbred habits that we aren’t even aware of anymore.” Schwaber continues, “The focus of using Scrum is the change from old habits to new ways of doing business.”

Schwaber is a thoughtful guy, and he pins down the essence of the challenge for agilists: there are entrenched habits practiced by individuals, and solidified by organizational processes. The implication here is very important – strategic – even: These habits need to be recognized and replaced.

Importantly, habits perpetuate the status quo. Habits perpetuate the culture, both the cultures strengths and the culture’s weakness.

The core challenge for agilists is that they are saying that their values might be better than their audience’s values. They want to change habits, but often lose sight of whether changing habits is good for the business.

Conclusion: The Implications for Strategic Initiative Leadership

The literature on habits and changing habits is vast. So let me close out this article by suggesting that the path forward for strategic initiative leadership is to look closer at habits.  Your questions might be along the lines of these:

  • What behavioral and thinking habits of individuals are getting in the way of progress?
  • How do these habits get manifested into organizational processes? Are the processes appropriate for the current business reality?
  • Do we get more leverage by focusing on changing individual habits AND organizational processes? Or should we change the process, and get individual change through compliance?
  • Might we learn anything from the study of addictions (which are habits) that is appropriate for our change effort?
  • How might we build our proposed ideas into a story about improving business performance, such as how Corning has done?

Agile thinking is about values. Do you agree? Isn’t the core of organizational change an effort to remove dysfunctional habits and replace them with new habits? What do you do if the habit is not dysfunctional, but rather a value that you disagree with?  

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Coherence: It is Only a Good Plan (Strategy) If It Makes Good Sense

Coherence & Strategic InitiativesThe well-known academic, Henry Mintzberg writes that strategy is a pattern of decisions. He argues (convincingly) that strategy is more than simply the intent to accomplish the vision; it is also the emergent result of manager’s activities.

If strategy is emergent, then it must somehow be influenced by the organization creating it. If strategy is a pattern, then organizations must have patterns. Interestingly, Wikipedia has an entry on organizational patterns, which includes this definition:

Patterns are those arrangements or systems of internal relationship, which give to any culture its coherence or plan, and keep it from being a mere accumulation of random bits.

The phrase “coherence or plan” jumped out at me. I’m sure I’m like many others in simply thinking of a plan as a premeditated and deliberate view of the steps, activities, and resources needed to create some future. For example, a strategic plan frequently nothing more than an artifact that is attempts to capture each manager’s view of goals and resources to attain those goals.

I now realize that that there is a more profound and fundamental perspective on “the plan,” it is only a good plan if it makes good sense.

However, the reality is that those goals are often in conflict and are unaligned. Strategic initiative leaders often find themselves in the middle of a group of managers who have these different goals. It is a huge source of frustration and obstacle to execution. Author Richard Rumelt (Good Strategy/Bad Strategy) states,

“The main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided – that the whole long list of all hoped-for “priorities” can be achieved.”

Most organizations pursue multiple objectives that are unconnected with one another (and sometimes even conflict).They are anything but coherent!

Coherence means that things make sense. In the context of strategy, it means that the committed resources, policies, and actions are consistent and coordinated. Back to Richard Rumelt,

“Strategic coordination, or coherence, is not ad hoc mutual adjustment. It is coherence impose on a system by policy and design…specifically how actions and resources will be combined.

My Advice to Strategic Initiative Leaders

Thus, I arrived at an insight that might be very helpful to the strategic initiative leader:  insert the concept of coherence into your discussions. How? One way is to ask simple questions, “Does this make sense? Where are the gaps? Are there conflicting objectives?”

One important question has to do with the expected gains of the strategy. The question is, “Are the benefits worth the sacrifices?”

Another way to encourage coherence is to activate the Chief Story Teller role, and use some of the many ideas that I have already provided on storytelling and branding.

Chances are that when things (strategies, goals, resources) don’t make sense, it’s already well known. What is missing is a useful narrative and the courage to discuss the incoherence.

Imposing coherence and discipline on an organization is difficult. I’ll close this article with Seth Godin’s interesting definition of hard work. He says that the meaning of hard work must change for the 21st century. He writes,

“None of the people who are racking up amazing success stories and creating cool stuff are doing it just by working more hours than you are.  And I hate to say it, but they’re not smarter than you are either.  They’re succeeding by doing hard work.

Hard work is about risk.  It begins when you deal with the things that you’d rather not deal with: fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of rejection.  Hard work is about training yourself to leap over this barrier, tunnel under that barrier, and drive through the other barriers.  And, after you’ve done that, to do it again the next day.”

Coherence is not a silver bullet for strategic initiatives, but a useful organizing framework. Do you agree?

Posted in How to Improve Your Story Telling Chops, Interpreting Strategy Documents, Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Four Ways that People Learn

adult learning cycle by David Kolb

One of the consistently popular “key learnings” in my seminars has been the four ways that people learn, also known as the Kolb Learning Cycle.

  • People learn from experience
  • People learn from reflection
  • People learn from conceptualizing
  • People learn from experimentation

Being a Change Agent: Bridging Tangible Experience With Conceptualizing

I challenge leaders to become agents of change. They can use the learning cycle by focusing on the elements of reflection and experimenting.  Consider a script such as this for encouraging reflection:

Let’s stop and take a deep breath. How are things going with this strategic initiative? Are people satisfied or frustrated with our progress?

You can encourage an experimental mindset which is valuable for learning:

Let’s give this a try. If it doesn’t work out we’ll learn something from it.

Culture is Shared Learning

I often hear people expressing the challenges of dealing with culture.  My defintion of culture is a shared learning of a group of people.

  • You’re trying to get them to learn new things
  • You’re trying to get them to un-learn existing practices

Suggestion: read my prior article Five Things a Strategic Initiative Leader Needs to Know about Innovation for more on this concept of culture and learning.

How do you encourage learning in your strategic initiative teams?

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Four Ideas for Creating Small Wins

Skadi wins de 124th Varsity

“Small wins” are modest accomplishments that attracts allies and deters opponents. Small wins are things that create or enhance a virtuous cycle, so they are not the same thing as a quick win.

How Strategic Thinkers Use Small Wins

As I pointed out in Five Rules for Managing Complex Strategic Initiatives, the leader’s goal is to create the conditions for good things to emerge.  Small wins help move the organizational system toward a new trajectories by nudging into new space or by wearing down an impediment.

Idea #1: Don’t let methodology get in the way of letting good things happen

Many organizations have created structured project processes that dictate step-by-step what should be done.

Processes define purposes and work steps; they eliminate ambiguity. They are good in stable business models. But when business models need to change, processes can get in the way.

The problem with these is that they work for routine situations but are ill-suited for non-routine, complex, and strategic situations. The strategic thinking perspective here is,

An opportunistic and experimental mindset attracts success.

Idea #2: Recruit allies

I recall working with a young woman who had great ideas, but few colleagues that she could trust (or trusted her – it was a very masculine environment). Ultimately, she left the organization.

By contrast, another young woman in the same organization was able to be successful. Her small win? She listened and resisted the impulse to argue.

Idea #3: Break down big goals into smaller objectives that are more concrete and short term

Small wins help to create an environment where the big goals become manageable tasks. To generate small wins, the leader seeks “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results.”

I look for opportunities to apply the “de’s and dis:”  De-compose, de-construct, and dis-ambiguate. Consider this technique,

Use the phrase “inch-pebbles” rather than “milestones” in your planning.

There are 160,934.4 centimeters in a mile for those of you that use the Metric system; so there are many places to note accomplishment of a small win.

Idea #4: Be generous with rewards (for yourself and for others).  But don’t overdo it.

Use this rule small wins = small rewards.  Here are some examples:

  • We will exchange high fives.
  • I’ll tell you a joke.
  • I’ll buy lunch.

How have you created small wins? What else can you do when faced with a goal that seems overwhelming?

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How to Prioritize Strategic Initiatives

Strategy is gatekeeper for demanding projectsA manager at an airline recently wrote me, “one of the biggest challenges we have here is that all projects seemed to be deemed strategic or part of a larger strategic initiative and priority is constantly changing through the year.  I am looking to get some practical tools and techniques to help get clarification from stakeholders on priority and help them see what is important from a strategic perspective and how they need to relate back to larger corporate objectives.”

As a general rule, a given business unit should have no more than 5 or so strategic initiatives active at any moment. Too often, though, this is not the case and the organization is unable to reap the benefits offered by using strategic initiatives as a tool for closing performance gaps.

600 Strategic Projects. No Way!

A while back, KoltoKan (a disguised name for a large NYSE-traded organization), let me peek into its portfolio of projects and programs for the purpose of offering suggestions on how to identify the true strategic initiatives from the other imperatives.  The initial list contained 600 designated strategic projects, and it was clear to most that more focus was needed.

Over the next months, they company was able to winnow the list down from 600 to about 100 by simply having a conversation among executives: Which of these are most important and urgent?

Most organizations face a similar situation: Each initiative – or proposed initiative – has an owner somewhere in the organization who believes in it and wants to secure (or preserve) funding and resources. When it comes to setting priorities, strategic coordination more difficult because organizations have flattened and decentralized. Given this, it is no wonder that executives collectively struggle with (or avoid altogether) cross-functional or cross-organizational prioritization exercises. 

Having reduced the number from 600 to 100, KoltoKan’s project portfolio analysts were congratulating themselves and deserve some recognition for making progress. 

Regardless, 100 strategic projects is still too many when the benchmark should be approximately 5 strategic initiative programs, each with a good charter and leadership.

WHAT is your strategy? Not: WHERE is your strategy?

During my involvement with KoltoKan, I would whisper and sometime directly challenge the analysts with the an observation: “I’m not sure that you have a strategy.” My reasoning is simple,

A good strategy provides a filter for determining which of many “strategic” projects should be aggregated and passed into the select list to attain the designation of strategic initiative.

KoltoKan  listened to my whispers but respectfully disagreed.  They provided me a set of presentation slides, anchored by a graphic with a nifty slogan. The document had passed by the eyes of a well-know consulting firm (Bain) and the graphic had been was posted across KoltoKan’s many facilities.

Their evidence did not convince me that they had a strategy. They had documents labeled “strategy” produced by “strategy” meetings; but, they were confusing goal setting and mission statement writing with strategy.

The fundamental issue, I think, is a legitimate confusion over the meaning and purposes of strategy.  Although many people regard strategy as a document or set of presentation slides, they are confusing the artifacts with the information contained in the artifacts.

The confusion is compounded because of the way that people interchange the words strategic with strategy.  The word, strategic – as a modifier – is a way of saying that the thing being modified is judged as important: a strategic decision is more important than a regular decision, a strategic goal is more important than another goal, etc.

What is important – that is, strategic – is subjectively determined by the individual!

By contrast, we can develop a more objective definition of a strategy as a coordinated set of policies and actions to address performance problems and opportunities in the context of creating advantage over rivals.

How to Prioritize Strategic Initiatives

I know that there are thousands of organizations like KoltoKan that have huge portfolios of projects and programs. Some have Strategy Offices and even more are adopting Enterprise or Strategic Project Management Offices.  They need a way to prioritize.

Here are four recommendations :

Recommendation 1: Get clear on the differences between Corporate, Business, and Functional Strategy.  Start with the concept of a business strategy as one that is organized to deliver one strong value proposition  over the competition. (I like the Business Model Canvas as a tool for defining a business and distinguishing it from others). See my prior article at this link for more explanation.

Recommendation 2: Examine strategic planning documents with a skepticism. Often, people confuse goals with strategies, so validate those things proposed as strategy.  You might want to read a series of articles on reviewing strategy documents, starting with this link .

Recommendation 3: Strategic initiatives exist to close performance gaps.  You can learn more by following this link.

Recommendation 4: Keep the number of strategic initiatives small.  You can find the data and reasoning supporting the recommendation at this link.

A final recommendation is this: understand the definition of a strategic initiative as an endeavor intended to accomplish three inter-related outcomes: 1) achieving a strategic intent, delivering important benefits to strategic stakeholders, and 3) transformation of the organization. All strategic initiatives are programs, and benefit from the use of program management tools.

There are many tools and techniques that we can use to analyze a portfolio, create strategies, and rank prioritize them. What are your favorites?

Posted in Interpreting Strategy Documents, Program & Portfolio Management, Strategic Planning Issues for Strategic Initiatives, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scope Creep in Strategic Initiatives: How to Recognize It and Avoid It

Includes Excludes Table Strategic Initiative Program ManagementI frequently use the Includes-Excludes Table as a tool for clarifying the scope of a strategic initiative and its projects. The Includes-Excludes Table is a simple two-column table with the word “in” placed at the top of the left column and “out” at the top of the right column. The nearby graphic shows a simple example that you can use as a model.

The value of this tool/technique is that is forces you to think more explicitly about defining the initiative and the projects that are in it. This quote from Chris Peters of Microsoft emphasizes the importance of excluding items from the scope:  “There can be good and bad vision statements. A good statement tells you what’s not in the product; a bad vision statement implies everything is in the product. In order to give you guidance on what’s in and out, you have to explain what the thing isn’t. And too often marketing will decide that it’s best if everything’s in… The hard part is figuring out what not to do. (Microsoft Secrets, Page 210).”  For emphasis,

 A good vision statement tells what is not in the scope

Poorly-Defined Strategic Initiatives are Most Subject to Scope Creep

It is important to consider and list are related concepts on the row of the table.  For a simple example, see the nearby graphic that distinguishes that apples, dogs, and Simon are in the scope; whereas, oranges, cats, and Garfunkel are not in the scope.

Scope is Partitioning into In and Out - Strategic InitiativesNote on the left side of the table, I categorized them as fruit, pets, and musicians. This is important, as we only get a good scope by understanding that the more abstract category (say, fruit) gives us a framework to understand structural and functional differences (apples have thinner skins than oranges).

For another example, if we are trying to improve performance of our employees, we need to understand that performance involves learning knowledge and skill (perhaps classroom training is in scope) as well as the motivation (perhaps rewards are out of scope). As I discussed in this article, performance improvement must be considered holistically, and not just a classroom training issue.

Now notice the line that separates the in from the out. The word partitioning is a good synonym for the word scope, as it implies that there is a conscious choice to categorize concepts. The word scope infers “partitioning” of things that are in and out of consideration. Failing to address project boundaries can cause all sorts of pain later in the implementation of the project.

Scope creep is a frequently-heard complaint.  The Includes-Excludes Table helps us to visualize scope creep as something that was determined to be “out” now has crept over the line to become “in.”  Returning to the nearby graphic, imagine that oranges are no longer out of consideration, they have moved to the in column. This redefinition of scope might change the direction of the strategic initiative in terms of team makeup, timing of benefits delivery, stakeholder communications, and so forth.

The advice for the strategic initiative leader is straightforward: pay attention to the partitioning of in and out. Don’t let something that is out cross the line unless you understand the impacts on the governance of the program.

Strategy Involves Nuance

I selected the simple examples of apples, dogs, and Simon to help the reader understand the technique of the Includes-Excludes List.

Now, let’s examine a more-nuanced example involving organizational strategy.  Let’s imagine that an entrepreneur wants to develop a highly-focused marketing strategy of selling pet food and supplies. Knowing that there are many kinds of pets – and substantial competition in this space – she decides that she will sell products to dog owners and take a pass on owners of cats and other pet types.  She might even decide to specialize within the dog market, maybe focusing on one breed of dogs or only on smaller purse-sized dogs.  Each of these decisions is strategic in that the strategist’s choices eliminate options and force more specialization.

Looking at this another way, the question a strategist considers is this: “How do I understand the characteristics of this element (size of dogs, breed, etc.) in such a way that I can manipulate the description in some way as to define what something isn’t?”  This forces a more granular understanding of the situation and the choices being made, and leads to more focus (which is a desirable characteristic of strategy).

This process of describing the in and out, and making choices, encourages the strategist to think about their business model in a more complete and logical way.

How to Reduce Scope Ambiguity & Gain a More Strategic Perspective

The word scope is ambiguous; experience shows that even highly experienced and trained professionals cannot agree on its meaning.  My solution is to always use modifier with the word scope, and my preferred modifiers result in the phrases Problem Scope, Product Scope, and Work Scope.  Thus, there are three kinds of scope:

  • Problem scope refers to the problems or opportunities that we are going to address and contrasts them with the ones we are not going to address.
  • Product scope refers to the included features and functionality of a proposed solution, contrasted with features and functionality that will not be provided.
  • Work scope refers to the work effort that will be defined, planned, and executed with the goal of producing a product that resolves the problem.  Project managers would typically list this on the well know tool of a work breakdown structure.

Diagnosis of the Strategic Context is Fundamental to Strategy Development

We all have heard the saying that a problem well defined is a problem half solved. Yet, my experience with strategic initiatives shows that people spend too-little time in diagnosis of the situation, and relatively too-much time in arguing over solutions.

The Includes-Excludes Table can help you stay focused on root causes and core strategic problems.  They key is to maintain a focus on the problem scope, and avoid the tendency to start designing solutions and implementing them.  What are the problems you want to consider?  What are the related problems that you don’t want to consider?

This is strategy work: situational diagnosis and search for opportunity.

Since organizations are complex, it is hard to partition initiatives crisply.  I recommend starting with a strategic diagnosis: what is the context and what are the performance gaps?  What issues and perceptions are going to affect executive and stakeholder consensus?

There is an old saying, “any fool can add, it takes a genius to subtract.”  Do you agree that we need to make the word scope less ambiguous, and work to grasp the strategic nuance?

Posted in Strategic Planning Issues for Strategic Initiatives, Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking, Useful Practices & Management Tools | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment