Strategy is Not One Right Answer

In a recent HBR blog post, Roger Martin poses and answers a question: Why Do Smart People Struggle With Strategy? The answer he gives is this: because there is no right answer.

While I agree with Martin that GOOD strategy probably does not have one right answer, I think he missed some important points.

Smart People can be Good Operations Thinkers, but Can’t Think Strategically

I think the reason for the struggle is that many smart people in organizations quickly become accomplished managers and executives. They run operations, find right answers, and get results.

I call these smart people operational thinkers. It’s mostly a learned skill, but there are some personalities that lend themselves to that domain. Operational thinkers, as a general rule, value productivity and prefer those tools and models that enhance productivity.  As a result (and over time), they learn a set of workplace skills that take them far in their careers: a value on planning, a keen sense of responsibility for production, the ability to get along with their peers (not hurt their feelings unless absolutely necessary), a desire for orderliness, the value of experience in a given domain (and the intuition that comes with the recognizing the patterns of that domain), a liking of process and a dislike of ambiguity, and a preference for use of deduction in a problem solving.

As a consequence of their accrued organizational power, operational thinkers are privileged to participate in discussions about long-term plans and budgets. As they do this work, they conflate the word strategy with strategic (as in strategic decision) and with the word plan. Long-term plans and budgets, while necessary for coordination of activities, are often confused for strategy, which is a kind of problem solving involving the interests of the organization in the face of dynamic and potentially disruptive change.

Strategy involves Inverse Problems, not Direct Problems

Direct problems as typical of operations work and inverse problems are typical of strategy work. Direct problems are well defined and inverse problems are ill defined.

Here is an example of a direct problem that a client company regularly faced: It would pay premium pricing to air-freight relatively inexpensive parts from China. The reason this problem was that product designers did not identify long-lead time items and communicate their needs to the procurement team. The solution was training and incentives to create new behaviors. Here we see effect (expense of air freighting parts) and we can easily find the cause (lack of knowledge, skill, and incentive). Well-defined and direct problems have a clear path to a solution.

Goal setting is an example of a direct problem.

Strategy are inverse problems, such as “what markets do we want to be in, and how might we prevail?” Inverse problems are ill-defined problems in the sense that there are numerous possible causes, possibly more than solution, and the ultimate goal may change as circumstances change.Simple solution are not likely to exist.

Instead, inverse problems require holding a lot of information in mind, tolerating ambiguity, and searching for insights. This is a doubly-difficult job because of organizational politics and culture.

Do you agree?


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