Reconfiguration and Reframing

reconfiguration reframingDomino’s Pizza Turnaround Strategy is an interesting case study in strategic initiatives, which I have described in detail in this article. Its core competitive challenge involved shrinking market share, declining revenues, and public relations problems.  It decided to reinvent the pizza by changing most of the ingredients.

As part of its strategy, the company also changed parts of its communications program with consumers, franchisees, and others. It embarked on a novel advertising campaign that took advantage of social media. Just like changing the ingredients was a reconfiguration, the new actions reconfigured business processes.

Why did Domino’s choose to invest significant resources undertake the makeover of its core product, with the risk of disrupting traditional consumers? The company’s advertising highlighted customer complaints. “Instead of ignoring them, we choose to use them to motivate us to do better,” said CEO Patrick Doyle. Domino’s product development team reframed the complaints into focused inspiration to make some difficult changes. It reframed its story away from its heritage (we deliver pizzas) to one of a heroic story (we’re a team that is unafraid of challenges).

Strategy Involves Reconfiguration

I propose that the process of strategy development is the reconfiguration of assets to meet a core challenge.

Let’s unpack that statement: Organizations (and individuals) have tangible and intangible assets. When they practice strategy, identify gaps. They search out assets from within and without and start moving those assets to create power. Often, they remove assets that are not contributing to the organization’s competitive power.

As an analogy, picture two homeowners who are selling their house. They want to “stage” the house so that it shows well. They de-clutter and discard things. They arrange furniture so that it highlights the home’s charm. They repaint. These homeowners are reconfiguring their home to achieve the important end of a fast and good offer from a buyer.

The second part of the statement says that the target of reconfiguration is that of meeting a core challenge. All organizations face numerous challenges. Sometimes they are the challenges of keeping up with growth and demand.  Sometimes the challenges are in maintaining a competitive advantage. Which one is the “core challenge?”

I’ve met many senior managers over the years. All of them are concerned about their success and are actively thinking about it. Although it might be tough for them to come up with a single “core challenge” most can easily list a handful of things that deserve attention.

These same managers generally have a difficult time when examining their challenges in light of the inevitable changes that will take place in the future. None admit to having a crystal ball, and few make the time for describing scenarios.

The practice of thinking strategically can help with identifying this core challenge and with making the right choices for reconfiguration.

Don’t Plunge into Strategic Planning without Some Individual Strategic Thinking Practice

Most good strategy work involves pondering questions. These questions are open and ambiguous.

On the other hand, a strategic-planning session typically is focused on creating a deliverable: a strategy and a document to describe that strategy.

It’s best to ask people to work on the strategic thinking before engaging them in strategic planning. Give them homework in the way of data, historical analysis, and so forth.

Also, encourage their imagination: what might the future look like? The goal is not prediction, but rather to create some open-mindedness and flexibility.

Strategic Thinking Involves Reframing

Strategic thinking is an individual competency. Its greatest value to organizations is that it contributes reframed explanations of the current and future situation. That means that we are taking current assumptions and reframing them into a novel, hopefully-interesting explanation of reality.

The simplest kind of reframing is that of refocusing.  To refocus is to shift the attention from one thing to another, much the way that Domino’s shifted the attention from “crust tastes like cardboard” to “best-tasting pizza.” I think of it as analogous to cropping a picture: you’re selecting the part of the picture that you want to emphasize.

A second, more-powerful type of reframing is one that questions and challenges the validity of the current paradigm.  Is Domino’s Pizza a food delivery company. I think the answer is no: it is a restaurant that happens to deliver food. The question “Who are we?” tends to stimulate this kind of reframing.

Strategic thinking is a habit involving awareness of the current situation and the openness to new frames that explain the situation. To improve your strategic thinking competency, look closer at the concept of reframing.

Tips for Reframing

  • Identify anchors in your thinking. Do you always go to the same explanations about why things happen in your industry or to your organization? What are your biases and prejudices?
  • Be playful with ideas. How could a new competitor disrupt your industry?
  • Get to know people who hold different ideas and philosophies. Yeah, this is standard creative thinking advice; however, seriously considering the validity of other points of view can show you new ways of looking at things.
  • Practice with historical thinking. What were the key events that resulted in the current situation? How much has the organization culture affected the retelling of the story? Take a look a turning point in the past, and look for analogies: how is it similar and how is it different from the current situation?
  • Play with scenarios. No one knows what will happen in the future, but a few minutes of considering best and worst cases can give you a new perspective.

A competent strategic thinker is continually aware of mental frames and continually practices reframing. It’s part of the playful thinking style. At some point in time, your intuition will tell you when the core challenge has appeared. That’s your signal to start considering the options for reconfiguring.

With this model of reconfiguration and reframing, I suggest that organizations don’t need to be constantly making strategy. It’s too distracting from the running of the business. Instead, I believe that every organization should ask its employees to make strategic thinking a habit.

To “think about” strategy is to imagine the reconfiguration of assets and actions into a new system.  To “think strategically” is to mentally reframe the assumptions associated with personal perspective.  This gives us a more nuanced way to describe strategic thinking as an individual competency. Do you agree?

Strategic Thinking: Finding Underlying Structure, Reframing, and Testing Expectations

Interesting Seminar

You’ll want to use strategic thinking for grand problems of organizational competitive position, but you’ll also find applicable to more mundane challenges such as this situation:

I was facilitating a workshop to encourage more discipline in project planning and delivery. I was well acquainted with the organization from the CEO down, and I was concerned. I knew participants would be distracted by their laptops and mobile devices because the continuing imperatives of responding to business operations in the midst of making the biggest ever company acquisition.

Every workshop leader and facilitator knows the challenge of gaining and maintaining the attention of participants. I pondered this strategic question on the plane ride: How do I create motivation and energy for the meeting? As I thought about that question, I realized a creative insight: I would start off the seminar with this question: What makes a seminar interesting?

The next day, at the start of the workshop, I wrote the question on a flip chart page. I gave the participants sticky notes and asked them to write short responses on the sticky notes. I instructed them to post the notes to a page and categorize them (see the nearby photo).

In reviewing the group’s result, I said, “Do you agree that you want this workshop to be interesting? If it this is what you want as outcome, you need to work me. You say you want fun and interactive. You need to understand that I’m not an entertainer. If you want interaction, you can’t just passively sit there and listen. You have to contribute.”

I also announced, “I’m here to help you get promoted.” That was a learning from earlier in the year when I found that the message resonates with people, especially those in the early and mid-stages of their career.

We had an engaged and energized session. Learners were willing to accept responsibility for their own learning and their own experience. One person said, “I thought you were just going to teach me some process. The message about getting promoted was really got my attention. This was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended.”

At the surface, this vignette is just a “how to” insight. But at a deeper level, there are more profound lessons that apply to strategic thinking. First, I recognized an underlying structure that was retarding engagement, and thus strategy execution. I define the underlying structure as a system of interactions that produce recognizable behaviors. They reflect the context. To understand a strategic situation is to understand the a peculiar underlying structure.

Here is a brief description of context: This company’s top executives seldom actively engage in the sponsorship strategic initiatives, except for acquisitions. As long as operating units make their profit projections, there is little interaction with headquarters. From a governance perspective, this highly decentralized organization leaves people alone to apply their own judgment. Further, moves to gain  efficiencies are often thwarted by passive aggressive behaviors (agreeing to support new ideas, and then fighting those same ideas when they affect the local operation). Also due to decentralization and the global scope, people mostly work electronic communications, especially text and email. They find communicating through gadgets to be less ambiguous that working face to face with people. The result for this company is that an short-term operational rhythm dominates its underlying culture.

The underlying structure is one of habits, two being: short-term operational behaviors and the pre-occupation with mobile gadgets.

Second, I used a strategic question to foster reframing the expectations of the workshop participants. Although short-term concrete reactions (have an interesting and fun workshop) were important, we realized more of a balance of looking longer term and more strategically. In this decentralized organization, people could understand career success better than they could understand enterprise success. It’s easier to talk about successful strategy execution when people can see a direct linkage to their paycheck and their career.

There is a third element of strategic thinking in this story. When I developed my insight, I expected people to say that an interesting seminar would result in their beliefs being challenged. Instead, the participants wanted fun and interaction; they didn’t want drudgery. The concept of “beliefs” is just to deep – and potentially scary. The solution needed to be pragmatic.

My expectation was a hypothesis, and the hypothesis was disproven. My hypothesis reflected the story that I was telling to myself, not the reality of the participant’s story. The learning here is one that gets repeated constantly in organizational strategy: individuals carry around stories that may not match their stakeholder. To be successful, I would have to adapt my strategy. Since then, I have started to think about every situation as one that might require me to reframe my own approach. An important lesson:

Good strategy has to adapt to local situations and the stories of strategic stakeholders.

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Do you agree that it is useful to look for the underlying structure, to work on reframing, and to test your hypotheses?