#145 Strategic Thinking Advise Critiqued

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The Harvard Business Review often publishes a piece on ideas and models that discuss how to be strategic. They use a slew of successful examples that seek to prove their point—that is to  use their model, and perhaps to bring them in to help. We thought our subject might be a refinement on how to assess the models you are offered based on the process they use to construct the model offered. For today, we examine how the author, Adam Brandenburg, in the March/April issue of HBR, Strategy Needs Creativity, is thinking about what he is offering, but is not evident to him. And to put the offered ideas into a larger context of options to better assess the effect it is likely to have.


It helps to visualize four natures of creativity, some which lead to innovation, and some even to industry disruption because it strikes the mark with a consumer or user. We can examine each and see how they give increasingly better returns in financial terms but also for all stakeholders in the game.


What does a strategy process look like at different paradigms?


  • The lowest paradigm practiced  uses brainstorming. It might be called, Liberty or Unstructured process. This is how most strategies in smaller companies happen. You hear, read, or discuss an idea and that is enough to send people off to work. It resonates. It often happens with multiple people, consultants, or advisors. Then it is pulled together into a pursuit and becomes the de facto strategy.
    • Even midsize companies do this. A group of people come together around a shared problem or one they feel shared accountability for. They offer spontaneous ideas which are then compiled for evaluation. There is no criticism or evaluation as you go along.  This leads to considering ‘the best ones’ when they are compared against one another.
      1. The intention is to stop debates and get imagination going. But there is so much research now showing it gives little new, and lack of discussion slows creativity, not elevates it.  There is no consideration of any ideas when it was offered, coupled with little real imagination when needs restraint to generate newness (and no one taking things personally).
    • The research shows brainstorming, instead,  gives people a place to bring in their long held and deeply attached ideas and push for them in the analysis phase. Especially since the associated methods are more or less sophisticated versions of voting. The loudest voice has power and little analysis of the value of each. It draws more on what would do something for current situations and not what will really make a difference in the lives of buyers or users. It is internally focused.
      1. It also seems that many groups have now seen the limits of brainstorming and found a way to put more structure in brainstorming. They offer a way to organize the conversation that can also stop debate

They offer a model that is tested by the offerors and then are coalesced into a model from which to generate ideas. There are three challenges with this level of thinking.

        • Inductively created– they look at what they can see on the surface  and summarize it into a pattern; than assume you got it all.
        • Abstract and Generic – this leads to an aggregation that is assumed to cover all but is abstract not related to all of any group, situation or person. And is therefore a generic, not specific
        • No validation of the methods offered by the author of the model–  which seemed to be suggested, the model that is,  as an after thought here. Like a schoolroom exercise. You can tell they were never part of the example used a evidence for what they  offer and is clear they have no idea whether that was what the example company did to achieve the story’s outcomes. Or whether they selected the example to prove their case without an experience of it, just by interviewing and or interpreting it, inductively

Here they end up with a ‘nice’ model based on Four C’s of Creativity, applied to  strategy work. Contrast, Combinations, Constraint and Context. That is the  inductive process used each time,  which is particularly deadly when creating  interpretations using their model as the reference. Without being involved and knowing what happened! Followed by uncorrelated, uncorroborated stories to prove their point. Prove you model using an case where  it was not used to create the work or the outcome. Fraud.

        • You get one of the worst outcomes in model building when you do this. This is my primary argument with this suggested model. You get abstractions that don’t have any really clear use for real strategizing process or strategy that is useful to users and stakeholders.
        • It is not effective in advancing the lives of the buyers or users in their engagement with the offerings they get from the producer. None of the four C’s start or end with the big C, the customer. They are just techniques for more ordered brainstorming and then aggregating into a model.
      1. It is the same process we have called attention to when authors are creating or using market segmentations that are separate from real people’s choices. It gives you nothing when you use the wrong starting point. Inductive model building leads to a so-called “pattern” not based in real lives.
        • They use  predetermined categories in this case. When you do customer aggregating of this abstract nature,  you use demographics most often and then make a tool. Here you have associations that can be drawn by what the surface outcomes suggest. But is is not proven to relate to what they were thinking or experiencing at all in the buying decision.
          • They don’t show you how the case company they use, as an example, really worked, They give instead  a simple brainstorming idea you can use based on their predetermined categories from the model.
          • The other problem with models is that they give us answers that are supposed to work for all situations, and forever, generically. This article even suggests that tools, like Porter’s five factors, never become outdated.
            • This author of article, offering a model wants you to add their model and techniques to get more “creativity.”
            • It is hard to grasp, but even though they suggest they are trying to get away from what currently exist, the techniques all draw on existence. A study of existence.  E.g. look at the industries gaps and fill it. In another case, they want you to borrow ideas currently in use but by someone else, or somewhere else in the ecosystems. It alrady exists.
            • They all are about borrowing best practices (unproven to be correlated with the results they offer). And none of them are connected to the market of the persons reading and evolution. They are not connected to their specific clients, users, or customers.
            • Abstraction seems to show up in each type of ideation they suggest for sure. All are suggestions to disrupt thinking with the implied assumption that something new and useful will pop up. Let’s look at each of the four.
  • First is Contrasting . Step one, start with the assumptions exist elsewhere  in the industry. Existence again. We cannot get beyond abstraction or become concrete unless you look at the real buyers you are serving and what they are counting on you for. That is a real and great source of creativity. Not borrowed ideas.
  • Second, Combine. In spite of the claim, that is not how Apple got to the alliance with Nike. e.g.  Looking for a “combination” they could make. That is a case built for the model after the fact using their abstract idea of what happened. We know from our work with Apple as well as extensive research that all their innovation comes from building integrated systems for real users. These systems  are hard for a competitor to crack into for a specific customer node. Because Apple  knows them well and designed for an system that serves theem than they will oot replace one element with a competitors offer. . It feels fraudulent to claim Apple proves the author’s case. The real source of creativity was and is customers lives, not a model of putting two things next to one another and drawing up a co-opetition agreement.


  • That is why we only use case stories in books of businesses that we were involved in the strategizing. No extrapolation from a business based on a model we create.. We are pointing to the poor choice of ways to work on creativity which are now organized into a nice model which seems so tidy, with its Consonant Defined Pattern- without Customer.
  • It is missing customer experience, their futures and eco health. To put Constraints, the fourth C, as an add-on. That is being ecological conscious seems artificial and is not connected to real life systems. We value using restraints, not constraints,  as a source of creativity and teach that. But not in the abstract but as reconciler to global imperatives that the business impacts. Connecting to how natural and living systems work.


Next Two Levels: Framework Thinking and Essence Thinking

  • Two processes in the regenerative paradigm which avoid the problems of brainstorming and of  using models. They produce not only great creativity but innovation which lead to real meaning, new capacity for the buyers, users and stakeholders.
    • Framework thinking means consciously selecting and using a multi-term system, based on how living systems work, to examine a given subject or idea with fresh eyes. Like putting on a set of glasses so we can look at different aspects of something to try to understand its more fundamental meaning. It works deductively form First Principles. Applied to a specific real life customer or node of customer.
      • It is working to produce discernment, not replication. E.g. the idea of paradigm is an example. A framework helps give  better questions rather than give generic answers to a abstract problem.
      • Essence Thinking increases the innovation because it allows us to more deeply understand the lives of our customers in how they live nested with the world around them. From where they source their motivations, and how they approach thinking about all of that. Without consciously moving to this level of thinking, we are left with a generic, abstract, flattening of people into boxes.
      • Essence is that which is specific to a living being. We see something, how it is working,  and at the core it’s uniqueness and way of being. How is it contributing precisely to you. That becomes the source of creativity., Motivation in the creativity is drawn from each unique life and life form. No two children are the same. Even twins. No two cities.No two watersheds are the same. There is no typology we all fit in. When people say, ‘they threw away the mold when they made him.” They mean, ‘he is living from his essence and not following some assumed ideal pattern for his category.’


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