Helping with homework last night, I was confronted by a trigonometry question a little like this one:
Now, I used to enjoy these things in my youth, but faced with a segment of a hexagon around a pentagon with angles marked up last night, I blanched. I could see where I (we - it wasn't my homework, after all) had to get to, but working out the route there was tricky.
Until I sat back and recalled a little of how I used to attack the problem: start with what I could do and see where that led. On reflection, I often used to just work out all the bits that were do-able and then see what that allowed me to do next. And quite quickly, I'd then find a path through to the answer I was looking for. (I was sufficiently geeky that I would often go back, if time allowed, and fill in other elements to the problem just because I could not because they were in any way relevant to the problem.)
To my mind, this approach tallies closely with the approach required in complex situations - we talk about "the evolutionary potential of the present" rather than constructing an idealised future state and reverse-engineering a path to it. It contrasts with much managerial practice, to my mind. There are undoubtedly places where planning and engineering are applicable, preferable, even essential. But there are other areas where they are not - indeed they can be deeply misleading and more costly.
For a complex result, better to know where there is the opportunity to make progress today and take that opportunity. It will, in turn, lead to others that can be chosen with the overall direction/end in mind - it crosses over with my earlier post on strategic narratives here.
- For employee engagement (how I hate that phrase), don't get bogged down with defining a mission statement, but start with the realities of people's experience that you can affect.
- To support local change, don't start with a grand plan for the next five years, but with a map of the current niggles.
It opens up new possibilities as small steps lead to new - and often quicker and cheaper - possibilities that would have been missed if a grand plan were being followed. It also offers a new approach to strategy-making - set direction, but then look for the small, granular ideas and problems as the starting point.
Strategy as the emergent direction of many projects and programmes undertaken within constraints - an idea that we'll be pursuing this year with colleagues and partners, so expect to hear more...