Designing Strategic Initiatives for Results: The Two Kinds of Coherence

constraints and strategic initiative designI’ve met many leaders of strategic initiatives, and nearly every one of them mentions the challenges of resource limitations. But there are other constraints, too, such as perception of time, understanding of the situation, tolerance of ambiguity, leadership, and ability to focus. Design is fundamentally concerned with constraints, and I’ll connect to that point momentarily.

The concept of coherence is an important principle for the design of a strategic initiative. When something is coherent there is a relationship between elements that implies logic and design. Stated simply, coherence means that things make sense. Thus, a leader of a strategic initiative should be asking this question,

How can I recognize and increase the coherence and integrity of my strategic initiative?

We’ll start with recognizing coherence.  There are two types: Imposed Coherence and Narrative Coherence.

Imposed Coherence

As I wrote above, design is fundamentally concerned with the constraints found in the organizational environment. I find it useful to think of a continuum ranging from zero constraints to many constraints.

Policy is another word for design, but the word design is strong in its implications of active thought. The role of design changes as you move along the continuum:

  • When there are no or few constraints, there is too much freedom and a design must be imposed to channel energy and power.  An example of this is an entrepreneurial situation filed with opportunities that are being pursued by energetic people with lots of good ideas. If they try to chase every idea and opportunity they will dilute their efforts. The common design prescription in this situation is to establish a vision and mission statement to inform the organization about why it exists and what it is trying to achieve.
  • At the other end of the continuum, there are many constraints: rules, limited resources, processes, legacy capital commitments and market, etc. Habits and mental models are powerful constraints that tend to perpetuate the status quo. In this case, design is the act of imposing a superordinate constraint on the organization. It might involve removing a constraint that is deeply embedded in the organization’s culture or process. It means saying “no” to things that some powerful stakeholders think important. In other words, it is the act of making hard choices about what objectives are pursued.

To say that something is “strategic” is to say that it is important.  As I’ve addressed in prior articles, it’s a real challenge to develop an understanding about what is most important and then set priorities.

Yet, the idea of setting priorities is commonsense.  Coherence is just another way to say commonsense. However, coherence has some other meanings that add power to the analogy.  A laser beam of light is coherence because all of the waves or fields are in phase. There is a single frequency.  Lasers have power because they focus their power on one point. By contrast, an incandescent bulb radiates lights in all phases and frequencies.  Incandescent bulbs are general purpose whereas lasers are specialist tools.

Now take the analogy to a competitive situation: if your organization is an incandescent bulb and your competitors are lasers, it should be obvious that the laser is going to be more powerful.

How do you impose coherence? That is one of the primary responsibilities of setting strategy and of leadership. I have addressed those competencies in earlier articles.

Narrative Coherence

Narrative coherence refers to a time-based arc of stories and events. As I’ve described in earlier articles, strategic initiatives are prospective stories about moving from the past (the backstory) into the future. A strategic initiative can be seen as a turning point in the organization’s narrative arc.

Designing a Strategic Initiative for Increased Coherence

Narrative coherence and imposed coherence are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can apply them in parallel.

However, you probably want to keep it simple. My advice is to start with narrative coherence and look at the elements of storytelling to find a tension between two forces and the heritage values that run through the narrative. I would also spend some time trying to articulate possible futures, as the strategic initiative is an attempt to navigate the organization towards that new future.

As I consider the narrative, I would work to identify constraints. As you look back into time there were constraints that were adjusted or even battered away! Are there any lessons to be learned from the past?  Next, what are the current constraints facing the organization? Finally, what might be the future constraints?

We’re saving the really tough work for last. A function of leadership is to impose design onto an organization by persuasion or by more formal authority mechanisms. Leaders have to acquire and use power for the benefit of the organization.

For more of my advice related to the constraints and design of strategic initiatives, you can review tools in prior articles, including:

What might be a third kind of coherence?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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