Dear Systems Thinkers,
What is Strategy?
This week we discussed “strategy” and the role “Rich Pictures” might play in developing them. Well, we only touched on Rich Pictures at the end of the session really, but we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about and also doing them in the coming weeks.
The main topic of conversation was the Richard Rumelt paper about what makes good and bad strategy. This one:
To summarise, his view is that most of what is called strategy is in fact “bad strategy”. He categorises bad strategy into the four following types:
- Failure to face the problem
- Mistaking goals for strategy
- Bad strategic objectives
- Fluff – i.e. empty platitudes and buzzwords
On the other hand, he says that good strategy must contain the following 3 elements:
A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.
A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.
He says these 3 elements for the “kernel” of a good strategy. I really like this approach. For me it feels right. Why? Largely because it’s honest and real. It’s about being honest and real about your situation and the problem and challenge you want to overcome. It’s about being honest and real about what is within your gift to do about it. It’s about being focussed. About making decisions.
So why are we looking at strategy anyway? What’s it got to do with Systems Thinking?
SSM as an approach to strategy
My proposition, is that a Systems Thinking design process is essentially a process that can be mapped over Richard Rumelt’s view of what makes a good strategy. I am proposing that approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be used to great effect when trying to “do” strategy. After all, strategy is a response to complex problem. And with Systems Thinking, we are in the business of dealing with complex problems.
This is something we’ll explore over the coming weeks as we get into SSM. I just wanted to make the point that it’s a valuable, practical and useful approach and can be used in our work to help us avoid producing “bad” strategy.
The strategy in our lives
Conversation in the session ranged across all kinds of experiences we’ve had with strategies in our organisational lives, both good and bad. The big one we all have sight of at the moment is Five Year Forward View. Here it is:
It is the official NHS strategy for “transforming” the way health services are commissioned, configured and provided. It’s a response the the various challenges the health service is facing. When we discussed it with reference to Rumelt’s “kernel”, we felt it was probably not a fully formed and rounded strategy. It feels like it is probably a “guiding policy”. The problem it’s trying to solve is intimated and briefly discussed, but not is sufficient depth for the policy it puts forward to solve it to necessarily have a logical link back, and there is little in the way of a coherent set of actions for delivering it.
Where’s the problem?
Having said that, I do have a good amount of respect for it, and what Simon Stevens is trying to do. Although it doesn’t stand up to Richard Rumelt’s view of good strategy, it is far better than many others and is short on the “fluff” and “failure to face problems” that so often dominates strategies. We wondered whether the work currently being undertaken around the country to produce Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), are in effect going to the the “coherent set of actions” to deliver the “guiding policy” that the Five Year Forward View is.
The one piece of the jigsaw that is missing in this view is the “diagnosis” of the problem. It does discuss the problem it’s trying to solve, and the themes are very familiar to all of us. The space given to discussion of the specifics of the challenges facing us are relatively brief and light weight though. Only a few pages, and many of the problems are discussed in terms of solutions. I think that’s partly the nature of publicly available strategies. It doesn’t necessarily do to well to give warts and all accounts of the problems you have. Particularly in politically charged areas like the National Health Service.
Let’s get drawing
So, as we want to get into creating Rich Pictures to explore and express complex problems, a good starting place would be to use the problem/s the Five Year Forward View sets out to address as an example. That is to be our homework.
Please come to next week’s session with a sketch of a Rich Picture of the problem/s the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve. You can do it on your own, or buddy up with others to do a joint one. I don’t mind. To remind yourself what the “problem” is, read those first few pages of the document. To be honest, it’s the kind of stuff we talk about day and day out. An ageing population. Increasing complexity of multiple conditions. Public sector spending cuts. A fragmented model of service provision. Etc.
It would be great if we could uncover some other relationships and contributing problem areas not described in the Forward View, but don’t worry for now. Keep it pretty high level. Don’t get caught in in detail or trying to create something perfect at this point. The purpose of this exercise is simply to have a go at creating a picture and using the notation Stuart burge puts forward in his paper. Yes, the one you rea for last week’s homework. You did read it, right? In case not, here it is again:
Have fun, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with!