This article will be of particular interest for those readers who want improve their strategic thinking. The advice for you is straightforward: Assume you don’t understand the situation that you’re in.
The dangers of the K.I.S.S. Maxim.
For most, this is difficult advice to follow. The reason is that their own natural predisposition, magnified by the culture of operational thinking, draws to “Keep It Short & Simple.”
A stance of simplicity is inappropriate for most strategic initiatives. Here are two examples:
- A company wanted to improve its new product development capabilities. It hired a large training firm with an established “best practices” project management curriculum designed for information technology practitioners. The methods and skills taught were irrelevant to the company’s product development process, and everyone involved ended up frustrated and in a blame game.
- As a result of declining demand, a company went on an aggressive cost-cutting program. Any proposal that involved expense was met with an answer of “no.” The cost-cutting program didn’t address the organization’s core strategic challenge that it’s once strong strategy had been disrupted by competitors. It needed to focus and invest, instead the managers found it easier to decentralized and tighten the belt. The organization never addressed its core challenges and the result was that the company became smaller and weaker. Because of simplicity, it was absorbed by a competitor.
Strategy is often oversimplified as vision, mission, and values
Many people equate the concept of “strategy” with “plan.” As a result, they misunderstand strategy as ordered and specific steps that get them to their desired outcome. They are ignoring the several pertinent facts:
- No one can predict the future. Unexpected things emerge and cause adjustments.
- It is hard work to get people to agree on the issues that face the organization
- People spend more time arguing over proposed solutions and visions rather than understanding their strategic situation
- Good strategy often hurts people’s feeling as causes difficult choices about where to invest scarce resources and where to disinvest
These oversimplifications (coming from a mental stance that values simplicity) explain why organizations flounder and resign themselves to bad strategy.
Your mental stance
When you are in your physical stance for a sport, your body is positioned to anticipate and react to the game. The mental stance is similar, how your mind is positioned to anticipate and react to information. The mental stance is the way you filter or amplify signals coming from outside of yourself. To hold a disordered stance is to look at the data as a set of uncategorized signals.
Cynefin’s region of disorder
I’ve been interested in Cynefin framework for years, but it wasn’t until I wrote this earlier article on VUCA that I really began to understand its genius. You can find out more on Cynefin elsewhere. For this article, I’ll simply point out that the framework is composed of five regions: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disordered.
In the Cynefin framework, the disordered region is the condition where people do not know (or do not agree) on the whether their situation is simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. To be clear, disorder means that any of these could be true (yet, when time has passed, only one of them was correct):
- The person is unsure of the effectiveness of a so-called best practice or process
- The person is unsure whether an expert can resolve the problem
- The person is unsure whether some unanticipated (black swan) event might emerge
- The person is unsure whether an experimental approach would help
A disordered stance is a better way
Instead of assuming simplicity, you should assume a disordered stance. Stated differently, embrace disorder as the entry point for analysis and decisions. Returning to the two examples above of the excesses of simplicity:
- Don’t be captivated or convinced by the label of “best practice.” Don’t assume that a performance problem can be fixed by training.
- Don’t rely on simple rules of cost cutting.
In both cases, a diagnosis of the situation is necessary. Moving past symptoms, what are the core challenges that the organization faces? This is the realm where good strategy is needed.
Some complicated problems are fixable, such as the example of new product development productivity. The answer is to avail yourself of expertise. Keep in mind that “thinking outside the box” actually means looking in other boxes (ideally as far afield as possible), a process that’s as analytical as it is creative.
For more discussion on the domain of complexity, see this article: Complexity: Four Principles for Program Managers.
I like data
When you favor a stance of disorder, you do these things:
- You research widely, looking deep inside other boxes
- You search for interesting things
- You expect the unexpected
- You resist “ideal forms” like methodologies and best practices.
- You dig deep to understand the fundamentals
Basically, you think in an unconventional way. Earlier I wrote that a stance of simplicity is appropriate for most strategic initiatives. I’d like to clarify that (somewhat) with these words from Richard Rumelt’s excellent book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:
A hallmark of true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable. A hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is unnecessary complexity – a flurry of fluff making an absence of substance.
I tolerate complexity and ambiguity
This quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is one that reflects my advice:
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Complexity and ambiguity are each a source of anxiety, and that the desire to avoid anxiety explains why many people don’t become competent strategic thinkers.
Do you agree that mental stance is an important leadership attribute for strategic initiatives?