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  • Nick Smith

Dolphins can swim - doing strategy well


We've begun this year with a couple of blogs on strategic issues – one about strategy and change linkage, the second about investors as stakeholders in change. Most of us want to be strategic in our approach, but for many of us involved in making change happen, the reality is that too much ‘strategy-speak’ can cause our eyes to glaze over. The frequency with which strategy is done badly, and the labelling of any or every thing as strategic when patently they’re not, doesn't help. This blog offers a couple of practical ideas – hopefully ones you can use when you’re involved in developing strategy (for change or more broadly) that will enable to you enjoy the process and be more effective in it.

The first is a simple, but potentially profound, point: strategy is not the same as planning. That’s an idea from Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and summarised in this HBR article. Mintzberg demonstrates that planning is about analysis while strategy is about synthesis. We might say that planning narrows things down while strategy (if done well) necessarily involves opening things up first, adopting multiple perspectives, considering different options. Planners are critical if we’re to get things done, but Mintzberg suggests we should let planners work around the strategy process, not at the heart of strategy development. He offers the thought that the planner is the person left behind after a meeting to package the strategic decisions scattered round the room.

How can we apply this practically? Simply by remembering as we develop change (or broader) strategies that we don’t start by planning, even if a plan is our final deliverable – necessary to make the strategy concrete. Rather, we start by digging, reflecting, listening – getting insight about the context in which, and the people with whom, we’ll be working. We look at what’s been done before, with one eye on spotting what hasn't happened in the past and asking ‘why not’. We make a point of coming up with different options, not just one. And you know what - this can be real fun; it’s creative; offers opportunities to learn, grow, and make new connections; and it gets us out of ruts and tired familiarity.

The second idea is one specific way of generating creativity in the strategy development process – around what we do and how we do it. Like the first, it’s from elsewhere – in this instance from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies[1]. For those not familiar with this, in the 1970s Eno and Schmidt developed a set of ~100 cards, each offering a question or an action to be used to unblock and prompt the creative process. When stuck, or wanting a creative prompt, you ‘pick a card’, most likely at random. Now in a 5th edition, the cards offer suggestions such as: ‘Emphasize the flaws’; ‘Humanize something free of error’; ‘Go outside. Shut the door’; ‘How would you have done it’; and ‘Be dirty’. They facilitate the adoption of different, tangential perspectives and thereby introduce creativity. The different editions of the cards have been used by Eno in the production of albums by himself, and the likes of David Bowie[2], Coldplay, and Talking Heads. With Coldplay, during recording sessions, each member of the band reputedly drew a card, and acted on it without revealing to the others what the card said. The ceding of control to something external (but with no axe to grind) seems key.

So how might we use these cards (or something like them) in Change, and in developing Change (and other) Strategies? I keep a set by my desk (you can buy a set, or find them reproduced in online and app form if you search), and when I feel stuck on something, I’ll often draw a card. Today’s (‘Gardening, not architecture’) is proving fruitful. If I’d drawn it while developing a Change Strategy, I’d have backed off my tendency to over-design, and I’d have looked for how I could leverage what was already happening (organically, growing) in my client, recognising that building on that might be more effective than creating something additional.

Similarly, if I’d drawn the ‘Disconnect from desire’ card I might have looked at my own motivations and explored the degree to which my own preferences (rather than what the situation really demanded) were driving the way I was developing strategy or what I was including in that strategy.

You get the idea? Developing strategy not only can be a creative process, but in fact really has to be. That doesn’t mean the strategies developed have to, again and again, be novel. On the contrary, they may reflect ‘a long obedience in the same direction[3]’, but we need to have opened up other possibilities in getting there.

[1] Oblique Strategies is copyright Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt [2] Hence the title of this blog (though for pedants, the cards weren’t used for the specific song from which this lyric comes but were for other tracks on the album) [3] Nietzsche

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