My recent blog post about Wicked Problems stimulated an interesting discussion yesterday about whether the concept could be applied to Strategy Development. The question was “is developing strategy an example of a Wicked Problem?”.
We concluded that it might be, because there is certainly no “Right Answer” and the route to defining a strategy is often not a straightforward A to Z journey. However, it also prompted a reminder of Eddie Obeng’s Four Types of Project:
Painting by numbers projects have clear objectives and there is a clear way to achieve them
Making a movie projects have a clear way to do them, but the end result is not well-understood at the start
Going on a quest projects have a clearly defined end-point, but it’s unclear how that will be achieved
Lost in a fog projects have unclear end results and no clear path for achieving them
Maybe Strategy Development is more like Making a Movie. Most organisations have a reasonably well-defined process for developing strategy, but when you start it, you don’t know what the outcome is likely to look like. That’s akin to making a movie: there’s a well-established production process, but you don’t know if the end result will be a box-office hit or not.
Strategy development certainly isn’t Painting by Numbers: there is no “Strategy in a Box” solution, however much Accountants might want to boil it down to the development of a 5 year budget!
There may be circumstances where Strategy development could be like a Quest. For example, you might need a strategy to to increase customer satisfaction by 10%, or to reduce operating costs by 20% and you won’t necessarily know how to achieve these objectives. However, neither of these (as written) are necessarily business strategies focused on achieving sustainable competitive advantage.
It seems to me that Foggy Projects and Wicked Problems have a lot in common: there are multiple stakeholders, many of whom have unclear and/or conflicting objectives about what “the answer” will look like and there is no obvious or “right” way to tackle the issue, so what works will have to be developed with the support of the multiple stakeholders.
On balance, I think Strategy Development is closer to Movie-making, but it’s really important that the tools used in the process allow for and encourage creativity, rather than stifling it. The process should be outward-looking (customers and competitors), but realistically based on internal capabilities and core competencies.
I’ll end with a definition of Strategy from my good friend Dr. Phil Driver (OpenStrategies): “Strategy is an Action Plan with a rationale“. In other words, it’s as much about what you decide not to do, as what you do intend to do.