Muddling Through Business Strategy: Strategic Shifts…

Although strategy for business direction is important, it can also stifle creativity, especially if it is rigidly enforced. In an uncertain and ambiguous world, fluidity can be more important than a finely tuned strategic compass. When a strategy becomes internalized into a business culture, it can lead to a group mentality. It can also cause an organization to define itself too narrowly. An example of this is marketing myopia.

Strategic shifts are questions of interpreting, and continuously reinterpreting, the possibilities presented by changing circumstances for advancing an organization’s objectives. Doing so requires strategists to think simultaneously about desired objectives, the best approach for achieving them, and the resources implied by the chosen approach. It requires a frame of mind that admits of no boundary between means and ends, it means “muddling through”.

The American political scientist Charles Lindblom published an article in 1959 under the title “The Science of Muddling Through”. Prof. Lindblom contrasted what he called the “root” method of decision-making with the “branch” approach. The root method required comprehensive evaluation of options in the light of defined objectives. The branch method involved building out, step-by-step and by small degrees, from the current situation. Prof. Lindblom claimed “the root method is in fact not usable for complex policy questions”. The practical man must follow the branch approach – the Science of Muddling Through.

An article by Andy Cox, President, Cox Consulting Group, observed: “Have you ever noticed how some people just seem to work their way through some of the most difficult situations, and come out the other side successfully? When asked, these people usually give some “Awe Shucks” kind of answer, and move on to the next thing. Those people know how to muddle – in the best of ways.”

“Mr. Cox continues, “I watched a tree trimmer work on a very overgrown and damaged tree. His work consisted of pruning a little and stepping back a lot. When asked how he approached this task, he stated that he always started with the end in mind – in this case he wanted to make the tree look good, but more importantly, he wanted to improve its ability to survive and prosper. How did he do that?

He said he just stepped into the tree and started taking out branches and growth that he knew wouldn’t contribute to his goals. Then he would step back and look carefully at what he had done as a guide to what he had to do next. As he stayed focused on what he was doing, the decisions as to which limbs to prune became clearer and clearer, until he had completed his work and he could feel satisfied that he had met his goals. I call it effective muddling – letting your actions develop the solution.”

Let’s face it – telling your boss that you’re muddling through as a means of finding a solution or meeting a goal is probably not the brightest thing one can do. But that’s the way countless problems and issues and conditions are wrestled to the ground every day. Successful muddlers know you must get into the problem to see what it’s all about. And the best way to do that is to stick your nose in and go for it. It may be that things become more confusing before they become clearer. But every act results in increased knowledge.

“Brainstorming” and “Ready, Fire, Aim” are two successful muddling techniques – and ones that sound impressive to a boss. Planning and goals are very important parts of success, but that first step into the unknown, having the courage to take that step, is just as important. And to do it without a clear plan – whatever that means, or without clear goals, is the mark of a successful muddler: A “just do it” person. “That’s what Thomas Edison meant when he remarked that each failure to invent the light bulb brought him closer to success. Without muddling through, Edison would not have given himself the opportunity to fail as a means of learning.”

It is tempting to think that the elements of strategic shifts; (i) reaching consensus on business objectives; (ii) developing a plan for achieving the objectives; and (iii) marshalling and allocating the resources required to implement the plan – can be approached sequentially. It would be convenient, in other words, if one could deal first with the noble question of ends, and then address the mundane question of means.

But in the world in which strategies have to be implemented, the three elements are interdependent. Means are as likely to determine ends as ends are to determine means. The objectives that an organization might wish to pursue are limited by the range of feasible approaches to implementation.

And so, although participants in a typical “strategy session” may be asked to do “blue sky” thinking where they pretend that the usual constraints (i.e., resources, acceptability to stakeholders, administrative feasibility) have been lifted, the fact is that it rarely makes sense to divorce oneself from the environment in which a strategy will have to be implemented. It’s probably impossible to think in any meaningful way about strategy in an unconstrained environment.

Our brains can’t process “boundless possibilities”, and the very idea of strategy only has meaning in the context of challenges or obstacles to be overcome. It’s at least as plausible to argue that acute awareness of constraints is the very thing that stimulates creativity by forcing us to constantly reassess both means and ends in light of circumstances.

The key question, then is, “How can individuals, organizations and societies cope as well as possible with … issues too complex to be fully understood, given the fact that actions initiated on the basis of inadequate understanding may lead to significant regret?”

The answer is that the process of developing organizational strategy must be iterative. It involves toggling back and forth (muddling) between questions about objectives, implementation planning and resources. An initial idea about corporate objectives may have to be altered if there is no feasible implementation plan that will meet with a sufficient level of acceptance among the full range of stakeholders, or because the necessary resources are not available, or both.

Even the most talented manager would no doubt agree that “comprehensive analysis is impossible” for complex problems. Formulation and implementation of strategy must thus occur side-by-side rather than sequentially, because strategies are built on assumptions which, in the absence of perfect knowledge, will never be perfectly correct. Strategic shifts are necessarily a “repetitive learning cycle [rather than] a linear progression towards a clearly defined final destination.”

While assumptions can and should be tested in advance, the ultimate test is implementation. You will inevitably need to adjust corporate objectives and/or your approach to pursuing outcomes and/or assumptions about required resources. Thus a strategy will get remade during implementation because “humans rarely can proceed satisfactorily except by learning from experience; and modest probes, serially modified on the basis of feedback, usually are the best method for such learning.”

The essence of being “strategic” thus lies in a capacity for “intelligent trial-and error” and “some might say muddling” rather than linear adherence to finally honed and detailed strategic plans. Strategic shifts will add little value — indeed, it may well do harm — if organizational strategies are designed to be used as a detailed blueprints for managers. Strategy should be seen, rather, as laying out the general path – but not the precise steps – by which an organization intends to create value.

Many people refer to muddling as a process – it is – but attaching that description to it takes away some of the fun of it. Muddling is as much art and attitude as it is process. So the next time you’re faced with a situation and you don’t know where to begin, give yourself permission to muddle – and watch the solution form from the actions that you take. That’s what successful people do more often than not.”