Love and Learn
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Love and Learn

Making to think — a strategy style for the changing times.

Strategy is sometimes equated with something conceptual and separate to action. The language that describes it is full of cerebral words such as “thinking”, “logic”, “plan”. This is in contrast to seemingly different world of implementation, where we talk “doing”, “effectiveness”, “process”. The gap between the two is especially wide in large and complex companies.

However, as the markets change faster strategic styles that are more effective are those that promote entrepreneurship, innovation and agility.

How can large and complex organisations become better at linking strategy and execution?

Let’s for a moment consider a different viewpoint on strategy making.

Consider strategy making as a continuous act of prototyping the future.

Think of a strategy as an experience, rather than just an idea presented in a document. Make it as something that can be interacted with physically, emotionally, spatially, and across time. Think of strategy as an object of design, not just as a concept or a plan.

This perspective merges strategy and execution and creates a transient space between the two, that attempts to build the bridge. A bridge to more confidence in our actions.

Let’s have a look at two examples to explore this idea. Case A is a simple example of how the above approach works well. Case B showcases common mistakes.

Case A: prototyping by experience

I’ve consulted to a manufacturing company that was redesigning their future around services. At some point it required a new governance structure. Rather than spend countless hours on making power point slides explaining a new structure (“analysis, logic, plan”), they approached it by putting selected leaders in a hypothetical future setting and enabled them to explore the actual topics they would need to tackle, right there (“synthesis, experiment, play”).

The group had a physical space set up for learning and an exploration environment with the aim not to describe but to experience new possible governance structures by playing with them in face of real set of challenges.

Although it was a tentative structure, real decisions were made immediately. The playfulness the the team exhibited was possible because of that experimental and experiential approach. Over a period of few iterations this experiment morphed organically into the new structure in a de-facto way. The principles and governance solidified through regular reflection and synthesis based on actual experience, rather than on theory.

Couple of months later, the organisation didn’t really care for a power point deck — it already had the thing running.

It wasn’t a pilot (that word assumes that something is already fixed, and quite known), it was an organisational prototype (making to think).

Case B: presenting finished ideas

The above example is in stark contrast to an approach a global bank took to a strategic scenarios project. The company decided to develop hypothetical future scenarios that would fuel the invention and identification of new opportunities. This was a great idea, but because the scenarios were created by a team of analysts behind closed doors, the resulting stories were not engaging enough. There was only one workshop during which the scenarios were presented and some group activity was facilitated, but it was not enough to help the participants develop new judgement.

Presentation of ideas does not result in the audience experiencing them. The point of strategy-making is to develop and influence judgement that organisation exercises in decision making. This judgement evolves predominantly with leaders’ experiences, not through theory or analysis. The presentation approach is not powerful enough to create visceral experiences of new ideas.

It retrospect the company agreed that it over-analysed the possible trends, and the team was more concerned with appearing “right” than in creating a useful experience for the users of the strategy.

Trying to be right and present finished arguments is a common mistake in strategy making. Strategy is not about being right or wrong or having it completed and finished. It’s about creating a compelling argument for change with room left for creativity and interpretation. If a strategy doesn’t lead to decision making, it’s a bad strategy.

So in order to create actionable strategy, think of it as a screenplay and a rehearsal. Stage it, don’t just document it. Make it experiential, be playful and empathetic towards the users of strategy: the internal audience.

This approach borrows heavily from the design discipline. Design introduces tangibility, bias towards making, focus on outcomes rather than just ideas, user-centricity, and iterative approach to what otherwise can become a very academic and theoretical exercise.

A good strategist is a designer of experiences that change people’s views on the company’s future, and in the result compel the organisation to make it happen.

Strategy making is not a linear process. It’s more like an evolution made of many iterations as we learn, do and reflect continuously. Especially in today’s fast changing environment, we don’t have the luxury to spend too long on strategy as something separate from action.

We need to think and act at the same time, and be just a little bit playful with our futures.

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Wojtek Materka

I help leaders develop and thrive in face of complex problems | Management prof @insead | Co-Founder Sapling Leadership Studio | [http://www.materka.me]