Logical simplicity is a cage that holds the strategist captive.
So many of us want to “optimize” ourselves, our companies, our careers, our families. We want to find the thing that will allow our success (that one degree, that one tool…) and build on it. Or, we want to find the thing that holds us back (a particular bias, a person in our organization) and eliminate it.
We want to optimize, but we want it to be simple. As a matter of fact, the more senior we get in business, the more “simple” we tend to want things. We want to ensure we can boil things down to a root cause and fix it, but we also want to be able to take really complex ideas like “how to transform a company” or “how to engage a workforce” and turn them into pithy phrases, like “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In other words, and unfortunately, the more senior we get, we choose to avoid getting into the weeds of issues, and decide to skim the tops of them. In the process, we start to accept “simple.” Simple is, in almost any strategic context, insufficient. In the big leagues of business strategy, the simple ideas played out years ago.
Simple is some other guy’s luxury. When we start to accept simple, we lose the fortitude to push to simple’s sophisticated cousin: Synthesized.
Now, wait a minute, you might say. Synthesized vs. simple? are we splitting hairs?
No. Let me show you why.
Imagine your strategic issue as a birdcage constructed of wire. Your goal is to ensure a sound birdcage…to keep birds in. So, what do you do? You examine the wire, right?
Wrong. You examine the cage. The unit of analysis was never the wire.
But, far, far too often, strategic analyses within complex organizations take the shape of examining the wire. They focus in on a single tool or system (like an HR system or a Six Sigma curriculum) as the salvation, and fail to acknowledge (or in the best cases pay only lip service to) the integrity of the system overall.
Simplicity (we’re going to fix our HR system) takes the place of synthesis (we must have an easy organization to work with).
So, why the rant on this topic? Easy: We have to stop looking at the simple answers as though they are easy, and the systematic answers as though they are hard. Many hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on consultants, advisers, and project teams installing the latest ERP system because doing so was the “simple/easy” answer. Simple/easy is pretty darn hard when it’s un-tethered from overall strategy.
The answer to strategy that involves examining the wire vs. the birdcage will always be easier; and is often quite logical in a vacuum. Go install a tool. Go look at a market. Go make an acquisition. All are perfectly logical. All make good, simple sense. All are destined to fail if pursued alone.
It’s not the logic of the wire itself that makes a birdcage sound. It’s the soundness of the alignment of the many wires that comprise the cage. We must, in other words, not let the logical focus on a single, simple “solution” take our eyes away from the broad strategic intent we are implementing. Many, many smart people fall into this trap.
A sound strategist can’t mistake logical simplicity for strategic synthesis. In doing so, the logical simplicity becomes a cage, but it’s a cage that holds the strategist captive.