The Paradoxes of Strategy

In thinking about strategy we do well to keep reminding ourselves that it is an unending task. Neither can strategy be defined and explained by a clear set of rules and actions. One thing that is clear from all we have read is that strategy is essentially paradoxical. Collins and Porras in their work ‘Good to Great’ stress the need to pay attention to continuity and change and in doing so have provided and simple framework of what to pay attention to.

In the ongoing work of thinking about strategy one of the most useful texts on Strategy we have come across is by Bob de Wit and Ron Meyer. It is a substantial MBA text entitled Strategy – Process Content and Context. We note that they identify three key dimensions of strategy – context, process and content which they explore by wrestling with the tensions in the field surrounding them.

This paper is based on a session developed for NHS senior managers seeking to build their strategic capability. The aim is to supplement existing thinking and enable people to step back and think about how well they pay attention to the three dimensions (and the interplay between them) identified by De Wit and Mayer. This work is intrinsically linked with Polarity Management, which is the subject of a separate paper, a tool which used by De Wit and Meyer to explore how the tensions can be managed well.

Three Dimensions

Every strategic challenge and opportunity we face can be recognised within the three dimensions of strategy described by De Wit and Meyer – context, process and content.

These are not separate parts of strategy, they are distinguishable dimensions.

As you can see, whilst these are all key dimensions of strategy, they are often both independent and interdependent in the way the play out to form a strategy. They can be shown as being linked together so that the content sits within the context and is surrounded by the process.

One way of understanding the strategy dimensions is to think of them as interdependent parts of a whole. Think about it like this – a box has three dimensions – height, width and breadth.

They work together to make a box a box. Without any one of these dimensions, a box is simply a piece of cardboard – it cannot fulfil its function as a container. In the same way, the three dimensions of strategy work together and if any one is ignored, strategy becomes sub-optimal.

Process

Beware thinking of the strategy process as a simple linear pathway through set steps, typically described as analysis → formulation → implementation, for this does not allow for the intuitive, the iterative, and the gradual nature of strategy in organisations.

The three paradoxes we wrestle within in relation to process as identified by De Wit and Meyer are

  • Thinking Logic or Creativity (how we should reason) – do we follow rational lines of reasoning building strategies on analysis or do we make leaps of imagination creatively breaking out of existing frames of mind
  • Formation Deliberation or Emergentness (how we should formulate and implement) – do we intentionally move our organisation in a particular direction as effectively as possible or do we allow strategy to gradually take shape incorporating new opportunities and growing insights whilst adapting.
  • Change Revolution or Evolution (how fast and sweeping should change be) – do we break the old established order and overthrow the status quo or gradually and steadily transform building on current strengths and loyalties

Content

The content of a strategy should be the product of the strategy process. Strategy can take many forms and each organisations strategy is and should be unique. There are numerous debates about the form strategy should take and many of these are related to different ‘levels’ of strategy. Since strategy can apply to functions, business units, corporations or networks the content tensions are related.

The three paradoxes we wrestle within in relation to process as identified by De Wit and Meyer are

  • Business Markets and Resources (how to sustain competitive advantage) – do we adapt to the market place and focus on satisfying the customer or do we build on our own unique qualities and focus on where we can offer a clear advantage
  • Corporate Responsiveness and Synergy (how to manage what business we are in ) – do we aim to quickly react autonomously to the demands of the environment and our specific circumstances or do we add value by creatively bringing things together coordinating and cooperating across businesses
  • Network Competition and Cooperation (what types of relationships do we want with others) do we want independence and power to assert our own interests or do we want to cooperate in joint undertakings to create stability and minimise risk

Context

Our context for strategy is always at multiple levels, there is the wider, often competitive, context of the industry or sector we belong to, there is the internal organisational context of the resources and activities that make up our organisations and there is the geographic context of the world in which we operate.

The three paradoxes we wrestle within in relation to context as identified by De Wit and Meyer are

  • Industry Compliance and choice – do we adhere to the ‘rules of the game’ in our industry or sector or do we seek to shape the industry or sector in which we operate
  • Organisational Control and chaos – do we order and regulate behaviour to set standards or allow for self-organising emergence in shaping our organisations
  • Geographic Global and local – do we coordinate across boundaries of geography through integration, standardisation and similarity or do we allow for dissimilarity and fragmentation to meet local demands