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Not strategy but decision campaigns

|Matt Offord

There is a Danish proverb that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.  This has not stopped military and business strategists alike from producing grand strategies to achieve outcomes.  These strategies rely, if not on predictions, on assumptions about future states which are unknowable.  These strategies are so unreliable that the military eventually generated an more agile planning tool which takes very little for granted.  But the business world soldiered on after the soldiers gave up on the idea.  Business strategy has become a hot topic and many business academics have written many books and developed many planning tools to help executives develop sophisticated plans of action to get, or stay, on top.  Let’s call these classic strategy tools.  Simon Haslam and Ben Shenoy in their 2018 book, “Strategic Decision Making”, point out that  classic strategy tools suffer from the “planning paradox”.  The paradox is that all the big decisions are made up-front when the least is known about the constraints the plan will be affected by.  This reminds me of the military wisdom that no plans survives the first contact with the enemy or, a personal favourite: “she who plans early, plans twice.”  By now I hope it has dawned that I am suggesting the military do not spend days and weeks concocting elaborate strategies or planning with “military” precision.  I would like to think that my time in the military made me a more practical, a more agile planner.

So it should be no surprise to learn that I quickly found my military planning experience useful when started my own consultancy company.  I was able to point out the futility of grand strategies and save a lot of time and money in doing so.  You see, a strategy is generally seen as an elaborate series of actions all perfectly synchronised with a well understood future.  In the sixties, when many classical strategy tools were devised, this was ambitious.  Today it is laughable.  We are now in the era of complexity, the future is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA).  Strategies must have sufficient flexibility  to adapt to uncertain events.  In short they are more likely to be a series of decisions than a series of actions.  Based on my experience, I have created a tool which supports these Decision Campaigns.

The Decision Campaign Tool for modern strategy development

A good way to use the tool is imagine a journey into uncharted terrain , the future.  As well as employing an exploratory mind-set, it pays to have a good mapping and navigation capability.  This is a good analogy for having great metrics in business.  In order to know if any strategy is working well, and when the terrain in shifting, you need responsive and relevant metrics.  Here, we are in the realm of Decision Science, Data Science and Business Analysis.  Leaders may not need to code interfaces between data bases, but they should know that integrating sources of information is vital to create these metrics.  This is what I call being a  “data savvy human”.  After all, AI and other technologies can do much of the data donkey-work but that doesn’t mean leaders can avoid the consequences of our data-rich business environments.  Technology, managed and transformed by analysts and scientists must be presented for humans, it needs to be “human friendly data”. 

Using my Decision Campaign tool, strategists and decision makers can spend some time optimising the information supply chain, after setting goals.  What do I mean by this?  I believe that information in a firm can be treated just the same way that supply chains are in logistics and operations.  Each source of data (databases and other information systems) should add value and be subject to the laws of lean (efficiency).  Connecting these databases so that everyone who needs the data gets it, is a priority.  I have visited companies where forecasting is impossible because the information needed is buried in outdated databases which do not talk to other systems.  And it is important to ensure that metrics, KPI’s and so on make sense.  Again many companies use metrics which are based on contractual or even political foundations rather than being objective-led; not SMART!

Now our strategists get to strategise.  I call this phase route planning because rather than create grandiose strategies, I recommend several micro strategies based on multiple scenarios.  These are alternative routes to a single destination.  The underlying logic is a little bit like negotiating traffic.  If you set out to work following your standard route but meet high levels of traffic, you may turn off and try a different route.  Further along you may have to make similar decisions or switch back to your favourite route.  In logic terms this reads as:

IF traffic is high THEN use route B.

This is the agile approach to traffic.  It doesn’t always work  but that’s only because you cannot predict what is going to happen on any given route and the roads may not allow you to switch when you want to.  In strategy, a similar approach can be used by creating decision points anchored in the future (a method I have borrowed from the military).  At the decision point you can apply the same kind of logic, such as:

IF route A has not generated X income by now THEN route B.

It should now be clear why so much effort has to go into optimising information supply chains and metrics.  Data underpins this exploratory and agile tool.  Data is the new oil, but it has to be refined just like old oil.  This is why we need analysts and scientists in the age of data and why leadership 4.0 is data-driven.

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