Reducing OUCH! in Strategy

20151104_145813We’ve focused on a number of problems associated with the typical way strategy is understood in organizations. Let’s take a look at how we might be able to reduce the OUCH! in organization strategy and we’re going to do that over a couple of posts.

I don’t think there is another area where the belief that power can create certainty is more entrenched than organization strategy. So reducing the OUCH! is a large task at an organization level. And since public perception mirrors how we understand organizations, reducing OUCH! in publicly owned organizations goes beyond the organization itself.

In earlier posts we focused on the creative tension model as the mostly unquestioned way of looking at strategy and how to make it work. Two key aspects of this model are critical in producing OUCH!:

  1. The start point for strategy is far into the future and this future is idealized as vision.
  2. The cause of human behavior is structures or systems.

Quite simply, the more that can be done to alter or eliminate these two aspects, the less OUCH! there will be. This tends to be easier said than done. The patterns of interaction that have created a belief that these two things are a necessary part of strategy are very well entrenched.

Nevertheless everyday in organizations we try and avoid the OUCH! caused by the typical way strategy is understood so what will be suggested in these posts is not so much new, as making more obvious and acceptable what we already do.

To consider what might be done to alter or eliminate the two points above let’s look at what really happens in organizations regarding strategy. After the retreat by senior management to create, or update the strategy for the organization, very typically:

  1. The vision gets forgotten.
  2. Emergent issues are dealt with by patterns of interaction that have been historically established.
  3. Significant projects resulting from the strategy get acted upon through the allocation of considerable resources and become change projects.
  4. Less significant projects resulting from the strategy get allocated to specific people with little resources and often fail or get put aside.

Pretty much, business as usual and even those significant projects coming from point 3 above are often painfully obvious as needing to be done anyway. Business as usual except now we feel guilty about not making something ‘transformational’ happen.

So what’s the big deal with strategy you might ask? Good question.

There IS no big deal with strategy the way it is typically understood and acted upon in organizations today. It simply doesn’t work any better than business as usual. There is no evidence indicating organizations are performing any better than at any other point in time, regardless of the lofty visions or well crafted systems to achieve those visions.

Strategy without OUCH! exists in those four points above. What we now see as problematic actually IS strategy! In those four points above the 2 key aspects regarding how strategy is understood to work are altered or eliminated. It is also in those four points above where influence can be more effectively applied if we take those four points seriously.  Let’s adapt and look at those points and see what strategy might look like, where we might influence and how we can alter or eliminate the concepts of vision, structures and systems.

Forget about vision.

It’s almost hard to believe I typed that! After working with the idea of vision for more than a decade and then putting it aside for now another 15 years I am quite convinced that the idea of vision has very little impact on strategy. At least how vision is typically understood within strategy today.

If you forget about vision you no longer have an idealized future or destination; which is a good thing.  You still need something in addition to those strategic projects to move forward with however. I think two things are effective and I gravitate more to the second one of these:

  1. The mission of the organization.
  2. The day to day ‘intentions’ of the organization.

By mission I mean what the organization is supposed to be doing. The idea of mission has been around for a long time and I think fits well with what strategy meant before being burdened by certainty. If the focus is to be excellent at what the organization is supposed to be doing, the organization will be better positioned to act on emergent opportunities. As well mission is applicable to everyone in the organization.

By day to day intentions I mean the overarching focus of what we do in our day to day interactions. This overarching focus should inform how we move forward and approach our interactions as well as be coherent with success, however defined, and how that success can be influenced. As an example, we have three intentions in our small organization:

  • Building relationships to create opportunities.
  • Differentiation in the marketplace.
  • We need all of each of us.

We do not have a vision or a mission. We assume that by focusing on these three intentions as our interactions play out day to day, we can most effectively influence our success, in terms of how we define success (more on this in other posts). We assume that by focusing on these intentions we have an effective strategy.

What we do is an example, you may do something different. If you are trying to alter or eliminate the idea of an idealized vision and the problems associated with that in strategy, you need to have something that informs how movement forward is influenced, and can be applied, day to day by as many people in the organization as possible.

Whatever ‘it’ is, it needs to be applicable, practical and meaningful to as many people as possible when applied to their day to day interactions. ‘It’ is also a process of movement, something that gets discussed continually as different contexts emerge. There is never a set or final definition, simply further interaction about what ‘it’ might mean in the current context you are dealing with.

And when you really think about it, that’s what we do in organizations now, shortly after the flip charts from the strategy session are rolled up and tucked away. What we don’t do is take that ‘what we do in organizations now’ seriously and try to influence it in a conscious and obvious manner. We assume what is wrapped up in those flip charts will do it for us.

If we can legitimize what we do now, if we can make it more obvious, more intentional, more day to day, a considerable amount of OUCH! disappears from our strategy work. It also gets more challenging; a good trade off I think and what the next post will focus on.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. If the idea of vision was eliminated from organization strategy, what effect do you think it might have?
  2. What strategically informs your day to day interactions?




4 Responses

  1. Forgetting about missions or visions is a little bit harder within non profits. It is highly important and often is the selling point for grants/funding or even just getting people through the door. With that being said, times change and the environment changes. It is hard to stay within the box of your mission when you have to find creative ways to gain funding. For a non profit to be successful I think they would need to stick to a mission but one that allows for growth, change and creativity. This way, it is not the main focus all the time but also allows the non profit to be successful and gain a trustworthy name within their community.

    • Jennie, this is an excellent comment and enables some deeper consideration on this topic which is important.

      What you have touched on is the impact of public perspective on things like vision and as you point out, when it comes to vision this can be very important for not for profit organizations. Interestingly the same is true for publicly owned, for profit organizations.

      So while I make the point ‘forget about vision’, that point is meant to forget about vision within the ‘context of strategy’. An organization may indeed need to have a vision for promotion, funding/investment, branding etc. and this can be critical. This vision does not have to be the driving force of strategy however.

      I am actually saying mission is more effective in strategy work than vision but both may be needed for the points mentioned above. Neither, however HAVE to be associated with strategy work within the organization and it seems that you are acknowledging this when you say ‘ I think they would need to stick to a mission but one that allows for growth, change and creativity.’

      Growth, change and creativity are happening so quickly now that emergent opportunities are more important than any strategic plan can deal with.

      Please read the remaining posts on strategy as I focus on the idea of your comment more and would appreciate your thoughts!

  2. Excellent analysis – I did not think of this before reading your comments, but can in fact see that oftentimes the vision is of little help in implementing (but maybe not in developing) the strategy; reasons for this possibly being that vision is distant, and does not necessarily resonate as much among the organization than it does to the management if it is ultimately held accountable for results.

    The disconnect may even be greater if what is presented as a vision is in fact a wanted position, with attributes labeled ambitious while reflecting only the lack of inspiration of an unimaginative strategy – like in 80%+ of the cases in which the vision is the traditional “to be #1 in … “.

    There may be a bit more to it than day to day intentions, but it is a good place to start! Thank you for the insight.

    • Jean, thanks very much for the comment!

      It would be interesting to hear your thoughts regarding ‘There may be a bit more to it than day to day intentions’. I would tend to agree (I think) but for me that little bit more is about ensuring those day to day intentions are a visible and conscious part of day to day interactions.

      In the next few posts I focus on this little bit more, as I understand it so hope you will stay connected and offer your thoughts!

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