The perils of bad strategy

Richard Rumelt – McKinsey Quarterly

If we want to create a good strategy, there is some value in understanding what makeas a bad one. This paper sets out to do exactly that and ends even more helpfully by reversing that into three key characteristics of a good strategy – understanding the problem; describing a guiding approach to addressing it; and setting out a coherent set of actions to deliver the approach. This is a classic article – which is a way of saying both that it’s a few years old, while also being pretty timeless. It derives from a book, but as is not uncommon, the book is very much longer without adding value in proportion.

Are we still talking about digital transformation?

Gavin Beckett – Perform Green

Apparently we still are. Whether we should be is another matter. There is certainly a strong case against ‘digital’, my version of which was made in a blog post a couple of years ago, which stated firmly

Digital transformation is important. But it’s important because digital is a means of doing transformation, not because transformation enables digital.

That leaves us with ‘transformation’. Is that a word with enough problems of its own that we should avoid it as well? The case against is clear, and is well articulated in this post: transformation carries implications of one massive co-ordinated effort, of starting with stability, applying the intended change, and then returning to a new and better stability – and none of that happens in the real world. Instead, it’s better to see change from a more agile perspective, neatly summarised in a line quoted in the post

Approaching change in a more evolutionary way may be the best way of making effective progress.  Small steps towards a bigger picture, with wiggle room to alter the path.

Sometimes, though, that bigger picture is big enough to deserve being called transformational. Sometimes the first step is possible only when there is some sense of direction and of scale of ambition. Sometimes radical change is what’s needed – it’s not hard to look around and see systems and organisations crying our for transformation. We should be cautious about discarding the ambition just because, too often, the means deployed to achieve it have fallen short.

Indeed, perhaps the real problem with ‘transformation’ as word is that it has been applied to far too casually to things which haven’t been nearly transformational enough in their ambition. If digital transformation is to mean anything, it has to be more than technology supported process improvement.

Strategic thinking with blog posts and stickers

Giles Turnbull

Strategic thinking is best done by thinking out loud, on your blog, over a long period of time.

As someone clocking in with over a thousand blog posts of various shapes and sizes since 2005, that feels like a box well and truly ticked. Whether that makes up something which might be called strategic thinking is a rather different question – but that may be because all those blog posts have not yet generated a single sticker.

There’s an important point being made here. Even in a more traditional approach to strategy development, the final document is never the thing which carries the real value: it’s the process of development, and the engagement and debate that that entails which makes the difference. The test of a good strategy is that it helps solve problems, so as the problems change, so should the strategy. Whether that makes blog posts and stickers a sufficient approach to strategy development is a slightly different question. There might be a blog post in that.

Management vs managerialism

Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling

And along comes another one, on similar lines to the previous post on strategies, this time decrying managerialism. Management is good, managerialism tends to unjustified and unbounded faith in management as a generic skill, to imposing direction and targets from above – and to abstract concepts of strategy and vision. As ever, Chris Dillow hits his targets with gusto.

Another way of putting that is that there is good management and bad management, and that there is not enough of the former and too much of the latter. That sounds trivial, but it’s actually rather important: is there a Gresham’s law of management where bad displaces good, and if there is, what would it take to break it?

Why strategy directors shouldn’t write strategies

Simon Parker – Medium

This post is fighting talk to a blog with the title and background of this one. Having a strategy – or at least having a document called a strategy – is an indication of institutional failure: once you get to the stage of having to pay people to describe the organisation to itself and to work out how the pieces fit together, something is already going badly wrong.

At its worst, strategy becomes about attempts to engineer reality to fit a top down narrative through the medium of graphs. … So don’t write strategies. At best they give institutions the time they need to mobilise against the change you want to create

Instead, strategists should go and do something more useful, more concrete, with a much better chance of making real improvements happen.

And yet. The answer to the co-ordination problem can’t in the short term (and the short term is likely to be pretty long) be to fragment organisations to the point where co-ordination is not needed. Even if that were practically and politically feasible, it might just redraw the boundaries of Coasian space leaving the underlying co-ordination problem unchanged, at the cost of sustained distraction from the real purpose. It’s not obvious how small an organisation has to be (or even whether smallness is the key factor) to avoid needing something you might want to call a strategy.

So perhaps the distinction is not that organisations shouldn’t need a strategy, it is that that need shouldn’t degenerate into the endless production of strategies as a self-perpetuating industry. That takes me back to Sophie Dennis’s approach, and in particular to her definition of strategy:

Strategy is a coherent plan to achieve a goal that will lead to significant positive change

That’s something which should have real value – without there needing to be a graph in sight. I’d be pretty confident that Simon has got one of those.

Pivoting ‘the book’ from individuals to systems

Pia Waugh – Pipka

It’s a sound generalisation that people do the best they can within the limits of the systems they find themselves in. That best may include pushing at those limits, but even if it does, that doesn’t make them any less real. Two things follow from that. The first is that it is pointless blaming individuals for operating within the constraints of the system. The second is that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

That’s not to say that people are powerless or that we can all resign personal and moral accountability. On the contrary, the systems are themselves human constructs and can only be challenged and changed by the humans who are actors within them. That’s where this post comes in, which is in effect a prospectus for a not yet written book. What different systems do changes in social, economic and technological contexts demand, where are the contradictions which need to be resolved? The book, when it comes, promises to be fascinating; the post is well worth reading in its own right in the meantime.

Mind the gap

Charlotte Augst – Kaleidoscope Health

One ever present risk in thinking strategically is to be too strategic. Or rather, to be too abstract, losing sight of the messiness of today in the excitement of the far tomorrows. Convincing strategies address recognisable problems (even if making the problems recognisable is part of the strategic process) and, perhaps most importantly, convincing strategies get to the future by starting in the present. There is no value in the most glorious of futures if you can’t get there from here.

This post is a brilliant example of why that is. How, it asks, with clearsighted perspective of very personal experience, can we hope to deliver a future strategy without understanding and addressing the gap between where we are and where we want to be?

How do we embed digital transformation in government?

Matthew Cain – Medium

There are increasing numbers of government services which are digital. But that doesn’t make for a digital government. This post is a challenge to set a greater ambition, to make government itself digitally transformed. As a manifesto or a call to arms, there’s a lot here: a government with the characteristics envisaged here would be a better government. But in general, the problem with transforming government has not been with describing how government might work better, but with navigating the route to get there – and that makes the question in the title critically important. Ultimately though, the digital bit may be a critical catalyst but is not the goal – and we need to be clear both about the nature of that goal and about the fact that digital is a means of transforming; not that transforming is a means to be digital. This post describes powerful tools for realising an ambition for better government – but they will have effect only if both ambition and opportunity are there to use them. On that, it’s well worth reading this alongside Matthew’s own post earlier this year commenting on the government’s digital strategy.

Thinking about the future

Ben Hammersley

This is a video of Ben Hammersley talking about the future for 20 minutes, contrasting the rate of growth of digital technologies with the much slower growth in effectiveness of all previous technologies – and the implications that has for social and economic change. It’s easy to do techno gee-whizzery, but Ben goes well beyond that in reflecting about the wider implications of technology change, and how that links to thinking about organisational strategies. He is clear that predicting the future for more than the very short term is impossible, suggesting a useful outer limit of two years. But even being in the present is pretty challenging for most organisations, prompting the question, when you go to work, what year are you living in?

His recipe for then getting to and staying in the future is disarmingly simple. For every task and activity, ask what problem you are solving, and then ask yourself this question. If I were to solve this problem today, for the first time, using today’s modern technologies, how would I do it? And that question scales: how can new technologies make entire organisations, sectors and countries work better?

It’s worth hanging on for the ten minutes of conversation which follows the talk, in which Ben makes the arresting assertion that the problem is not that organisations which can change have to make an effort to change, it is that organisations which can’t or won’t change must be making a concerted effort to prevent the change.

It’s also well worth watching Ben Evan’s different approach to thinking about some very similar questions – the two are interestingly different and complementary.

The Problem With Finding Answers

Paul Taylor

There are some who argue that the only test of progress is delivery and that the only thing which can be iterated is a live service. That is a horribly misguided approach. There is no point in producing a good answer to a bad question, and lots to be gained from investing time and energy in understanding the question before attempting to answer it. Even for pretty simple problems, badly formed initial questions can generate an endless – and expensive – chain of solutions which would never have needed to exist if that first question had been a better one. Characteristically, Paul Taylor asks some better questions about asking better questions.

Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change

This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.

Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.

 

Using Design Principles to Describe What Transformation Means

Paul Taylor

“Transformation” is a dangerous word.  It is bold in ambition, but often very uncertain in precision. Instead of attempting yet another definition, as part of yet another attempt to tie the concept down, this post sets out eight powerful design principles which, if applied, would result in something which pretty unarguably would have delivered transformation. Perhaps transformation isn’t what you do, it’s how you tell what you’ve done.

But whatever the level of ambition, there is a lot in these apparently simple principles – well worth keeping close to hand.

Creating Policy Innovation in the context of Government Bureaucracies? Could ‘Parallel Learning Structures’ be an answer?

It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions.  But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’.  From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core. 

Colin Talbot – Cambridge Policy Lab

The grammar of good government – or why prepositions matter

Not everything governments do is for and to people. Governments also do things with and by people. Sorting the roles of government by preposition is arrestingly simple and unexpectedly powerful. Government involves for, with, to and by; good government uses them appropriately and gets the balance right between them.

This elegant short post is also a powerful – if indirect and possibly unintended – challenge to the naive view that government is reducible to service design.

Geoff Mulgan – NESTA

Why Even Bother With a User-Centered, Digital Gov’t?

There is lots of attention and activity around the question of how government should be made to work better, and in particular how it should be made to work better with modern technology.  There is much less attention given to the question of why doing that is a good thing. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap from somebody who has been thinking about these issues pretty much from the beginning. It’s an extremely good first answer, but it is, of course, not the only one possible. It will be interesting to see if others rise to the challenge Tom poses.

Tom Steinberg – Civic Hall

Learning from historical waves

This is a good antidote to the kind of technological determinism which is a frequent substitute for strategic thinking. It recognises instead the importance of social and economic consequences of new technologies and, crucially, that they take a long time to play out. It is slightly weaker on introducing a new emphasis on data to the discussion, rightly recognising that traditional legal and regulatory models don’t easily fit the dispersed complexity of data, but perhaps missing the thought that data is already showing strong signs of following the stages towards organisational capture described by Tim Wu in one of the books which are the foundation for this article.

Peter Wells – Medium

A Busted Flush in the House of Cards

This is a powerful challenge to everybody who works in any part of government. The system is fundamentally broken because its components were never designed or intended to act coherently and effectively as a system – and they don’t. There is considerable power in that diagnosis, implying if not quite drawing the conclusion that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system. The problem, of course, is that that is both intrinsically very hard to do and never seems to be as important or urgent as addressing specific policy problems – which is where we came in. So the hard question is not whether a better system could be devised (because there can be little doubt that it could be); it is whether the current system has the capability to make the changes needed. It is hard to stop and start again from scratch. That’s not just true of the UK – it has been argued that the most needed amendment to the US constitution is to make it easier to make constitutional amendments, which is probably impossible. None of that makes Straw’s diagnosis wrong, but it does underline that the route to change is as critical as the destination.

Ed Straw

Policymaking must become more empathetic rather than continuing its current overreliance on economic measures

There is a caricature of policy making in which it is presented as an exercise in introspection, free of evidence and free in particular of contact with those who might experience and understand the context and impact of its delivery. Like all good caricatures, there is something recognisable in that, and like all good caricatures, those caricatured more easily see the distortion than the likeness.

The underlying challenge in this post is a good one. Emphasis on things which can be measured distorts attention from things which may be just as important but are more elusive. Understanding the variation around a central figure is as important as understanding the central figure itself – and can tell you very different things. Broader and more qualitative approaches are an essential complement to narrower and more quantitative ones.

But policy makers are people too. Dismissing them as ivory towered elitists is too easy. It would be good to have more empathetic policy makers, but more empathy with policy makers is part of what we need to get there. Policy making is itself the product of a system – and understanding the drivers and behaviours of that system is the essential first step to changing it.

Emmanuel Lee – LSE Impact Blog

Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly

Not at first sight an obvious entry for inclusion here, but indirectly very relevant to thinking about the impact of change on large organisations. The size and complexity of organisations, it is argued, is a function of the relative costs of internal control and market transactions – whether it’s cheaper to make or to buy. That is in turn in part a function of the cost and availability of information. And so the conclusion is reached that digitally-based organisations will be smaller and fleeter of foot than their predecessors and that large ungainly organisations of the pre-internet era are doomed to extinction, with government in their current form being among those whose demise is inevitable.

In some circles, that conclusion is seen as an obvious one. Farrell’s argument is that something critical is missing from the analysis, the self-interest of individuals, and that when that is factored in, the picture looks very different. That matters not to justify slow change in large organisations, but to explain that power relations are a critical part of understanding the overall situation. And as long as they remain unequal, the pop up employer is likely to remain intriguing at the margins, rather than central to how stuff gets done.

Henry Farrell – Crooked Timber

The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated

Complicated problems can be solved; complex problems can only be managed. Complicated problems can be addressed algorithmically; complex problems require creativity and adaptability. This article is more concerned with describing that distinction then addressing it, though that may just reflect the fact that it is an extract from a book, It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business, which no doubt provides a fuller account.

In a world of complex problems, plans and strategies do not align tidily with results, which is a reason for approaching them differently, rather than not having them. And that in turn requires organisations which can be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Rick Nason – MIT Sloan Management Review