We really enjoyed this pop-up event, the latest in our Do Strategy Better series. We are taking this opportunity to share the recording, and to attach a few additional thoughts in writing. So if you couldn’t make it to the event, it’s all here. And if you did come along, there’s something extra for you!
In the blog below we offer a commentary on the book Open Strategy by Dr Christian Stadler and colleagues, drawing out some of the themes we discussed in the pop-up, and further developing some of the observations.
We hope that you enjoy the blog, and that you’ll decide to join us again on October 20th for the next event in this series, where John Higgins will join WaterAid’s Olga Ghazaryan and William Garrood to discuss how they opened up their long term strategy process.
Meanwhile – here’s the recording and the blog is directly below.
There has never been more need for exploration. Now is the moment to get very serious about not knowing: it is time to become better about finding stuff out together. It is obvious that we are going to need innovations in field after field. The “same old” thinking that got us here must stop. Time for something else.
But, you do not get “something else” by thrashing away at the “same old” processes that gave us what we have always got. The strategic thinking methods we have been using are not fit for purpose, indeed they have not been fit for some time. Relying on a tiny elite of boardroom leaders and their ivy league advisers is not going to be enough. We need to tap into a wider and richer seam of wisdom to get the ideas we need and to get them delivered well and quickly.
Fortunately, there is another way to think strategically, to innovate and to harness a wider and richer way of bringing people together to create new strategic insight and to act on it effectively.
We have been working on this for the best part of two decades – we call it participative strategy and we have written a lot about it**. To be honest, our work has been confined to niches, practiced with a handful of pioneering clients, and for a long time the ideas have gained little support, even from the business school we once worked in.
We are thrilled therefore to see the work starting to come into the mainstream of practice. We’ve seen a handful of books recently that introduce the concept into a wider management discourse. We say yes to this, bring it on. This is what the world needs now.
That’s why we are taking the time to review the books we are seeing coming into this field. To help them get as wide a readership as possible, and to contribute our ideas and practice to the field as it continues to emerge.
In this article we review and comment on Open Strategy* by Christian Stadler and colleagues. It is a very good book, and we recommend it highly. We compare the approach taken by that book to our own work, as reflected in our own writing on participative strategy.
The book is a practical handbook on how to “do strategy” by opening the strategic process to a wide group of stakeholders and makes a strong case for why this matters. There’s just too much “isomorphic strategy” about, the authors say: dull, lookalike work posing as strategy. They also say that too much strategy wallows in executive team biases that go unchecked or end up with grand ideas at odds with the aspirations of the wider organisational team, which can never be fully executed. These are solid claims and we’ve certainly seen evidence of all these issues.
The rest of the book is about cracking on with it and structured in two parts: preparation to embark on open strategy, and the open strategy toolkit.
Preparation to embark on Open Strategy
The readiness assessment wisely starts with a series of questions to judge whether this process is for you.
We have certainly seen senior management teams start with good intentions and then retract in fear – the authors’ story about a CEO client expressing fear of a loss of control is certainly a familiar one. Helpfully the book also provides a series of exercises to develop your readiness if you don’t think you’re there yet.
This is helpful though a little optimistic. In our view it will take more than a bit of reading to move many management teams to be match fit for the work participative strategy involves. But our main challenge to the authors is that in our experience it doesn’t matter. What matters is starting! Provided there is some energy for working differently within the top team, that is enough to make a start. If you wait to get everyone “ready” to begin, you’ll be waiting a long time. Design it well enough, and you can start from wherever you are right now.
There is a chapter on designing the open strategy process, which is again very helpful. It addresses relevant questions through a similar list to that we have previously published. Namely, the design process needs to address how wide a participation you want your process to have; whether it is purely an internal process or open to external involvement and insight; whether it is a small or large group process; whether to run the process digitally, analogue or both; and whether the process is open to all or by invitation.
As practitioners we focus our client’s attention on exactly these points and give the same advice – “don’t just jump in, design!”. Our experience is that there is a design that will get you underway whatever your state of readiness. The main thing is not to push water uphill. Start with the energy that is there, don’t try to force it and don’t wait to build it before beginning. If you create a design that works with what is, and work with your eyes wide open, you will build understanding and energy as you go. Invitation and inclusion, along with the sharing of learning as a living part of the process, is part of the design.
The authors also provide a helpful and practical chapter on how to handle confidentiality and secrecy concerns – an issue widely overlooked in strategy processes. Excellent to see it included here.
The Open Strategy Toolkit
The book then goes on to provide a toolkit for anyone wanting to practice in this way. It is both a homage to the power of crowd wisdom and a practical “how to do it book” that walks users through the main strategy phases. We are delighted to see that the toolkit covers implementation as well as idea creation – so many clients try to stop the participative work at the ideas stage.
The main tools explained in the book cover the following areas:
We are hugely appreciative of the work the authors have done to create and share this toolkit. We have only two observations on the section. Firstly, the work here is very much an account of the authors’ own consulting approach (IMP Consulting) – so the tools reflect their way of working. We are impressed by the generosity of the sharing, and we are equally clear that there are other approaches that deliver the same outcomes. These approaches, which are quite digital and tech-heavy, are emphatically not the only way in which these outcomes can be achieved. Secondly, the approach embodied in these tools is very analytical – in the sense of harnessing rational and logical forms of collective action. This is, in our view, a bit too small – a wider harnessing of richer forms of knowing is possible. Overall, however the toolkit is a terrific start, will be useful to many, and is an excellent basis to undertake strategic work.
Our own experience is that the work can be done at all kinds of scale, can be as digital or analogue as you wish, and can be supported in very light touch and low-cost ways. Hybrid solutions, designed specifically for the situation, can do the work beautifully.
Our work has included supporting two global charities (one in medical research, one in humanitarian & sanitation initiatives). Neither one was in the position to support online strategy contests or global hackathons. No problem. It was possible in these cases to harness existing internal processes to do the participative strategy work. The role we played to be a thinking partner, co-designer and coach to the steering team. In fact, such light touch interventions have often been the best work – because the more the organisation “does it for themselves” the richer the yield becomes. We have supported participative strategy processes involving multi-thousand person invitations, with no digital platform whatsoever. Co-creation beats technical wizardry every time.
In one university we worked with, the difference that really made a difference was to get people talking. In this case analogue working mattered. Everyone did enough digital work. And the aim as to include insight from people who simply didn’t have access to hackathons and jam boards. The work included everyone from Professors to admin teams, security staff to cleaners. The point is that they all had insights of great value, and a human conversation was the way to get at this. We made use of everything from corridor chats to community meetings, dial-ins to massive group events. The point is not to be doctrinaire or fixed on methodology – the essence of participative strategy is to be improvisational. Meet people where they are and find a form to do the work that needs to be done. Of course, that’s hard to write into a toolkit, but it is what the work needs.
In a global high-tech materials science company, our main role was to convene a series of large-scale gatherings. In what amounted to a mass speed dating event, we involved 25% of the organisation’s top 200 in co-creating an event with their customers, using a mix of analogue and digital approaches, and then convened and facilitated three-day events that brought the entire group together to identify need customer understanding, technical opportunities and cross- silo solutions. It involved a blend of forms from peer dialogue to work with artists, improvisation to world-café provocations. The results were both immediate and tangible, and this was due mostly to letting the people do the work themselves – which is rare because generally top management and structure gets in the way. Designing ways to get the organisation out of its own way is sometimes an art form.
There’s a lot more we could say, and some of our writing does spell out more of the detail. We have provided links to some of our writing ** below, and we plan to share more in the form of case studies written jointly with our clients in the coming months. Our own “toolkit” (it’s more a way of being than a toolkit) is described in our book Disrupted! (2021), which we also recommend!
But for now, we commend Open Strategy to you. It is a fine book. Read it, perhaps alongside our comments and observations because it takes a narrower view than we would ideally suggest. If it opens the door to more organisations opening their strategy processes more widely, then the authors will have done the world a significant service.
References / Links
* Open Strategy (2021), by Christian Stadler, Julia Hautz, Kurt Matzler and Stephan Fredrich von den Eichen
** We have written a lot over the years on this subject, including the following:
Chief Strategy Officers Playbook Page 77-81
What you need to know about strategy page Page 245-271