To make strategy more successful and effective, we need to think about strategy in a useful way. However, if we look at the dominant way of thinking about what strategy is and how it is made, it turns out this way of thinking is not so useful. On the contrary, strategy suffers from no less than ten insistent myths that hinder substantial progress for decades already. My aim with this series of articles is to break through these myths and thereby come to a more useful way of thinking about strategy. This article covers Myth #5: Strategy Should Be Simple.
To be effective, strategy needs to be simple, so the idea goes. After all, if we can’t formulate a strategy in one or few sentences, it is too complex for people to understand and remember. Therefore, any strategy needs to be crisp enough to express it in one or few strong and inspirational statements.
Not only the formulated strategy needs to be simple, also the way we generate it. We need simple frameworks and typologies that help us make sense of the world in a simple and easy way. Particularly two-by-two matrices like the SWOT and the BCG matrix are useful because they effectively divide the world into four boxes that are easy to understand.
The need for simple strategies was always there, but, so the idea continues, it is even more pressing in today’s complex world. As some argue, yesterday’s world was simple enough to have complex strategies, but today’s world is so complex that our strategies need to be very simple and swift.
Why It Is Wrong
Like with the previous myths, it all sounds intuitive and sensible. We like to make things simple, and we certainly like it when people tell us that simplification is what is needed. This is comforting. And of course, simplification is always needed. There is no way around it. But the extreme levels at which simplicity is promoted in strategy is a problem. The following five reasons explain why.
- We confuse title with content. The title of a book (or a blog post if you like) is not the same as its contents. The title is the shortest possible summary of the book. But it is not the book. Of course we know this, but in strategy we seem to forget this all the time. Yes, it may be useful to have a nice sounding name for your strategy, or a summary. But that is not the strategy itself. Like the contents of a book, a good strategy is much more sophisticated and complex than its mere title or summary suggests.
- Strategy is not two-dimensional. Trying to simplify strategy with simple frameworks such as two-by-two matrices is a grave oversimplification of what strategy is about. Because it links everything else in an organization, strategy is one of the most complex topics in business. Therefore, it is rather absurd to think that, while we have much more advanced methods and tools for about every other aspect of business, strategy can be made with such simple tools.
- It promotes sloppy thinking. The whole idea that strategy should be simple and that the way to get there is through simple models and approaches, promotes sloppy thinking. Strategy is one of the most polluted fields when it concerns the flourishing of nice sounding, but not supported ideas and concepts. Whether it is generic strategies, blue ocean strategy or Golden circles, the core message is that strategy can and needs to be simple. This is comforting. But it draws the attention away from the nitty-gritty hard and intelligent work of actually identifying and realizing a value-creating strategy that helps organizations survive and thrive.
- It is based on smart rhetoric. We buy the simplistic ideas about strategy for the same reason as we buy stuff based on advertisements: we let ourselves be convinced by smart rhetoric that plays the subconscious part of our brain. Simon Sinek (the Golden Circle) is a master in this. When you read his book or watch his talks carefully, you can see how he uses smart rhetorical tricks that make it hard to not be enthusiastic about his ideas. They sound appealing and intuitive and they trigger the things that we want to believe. But this doesn’t necessarily make them true or useful.
- Inspiration doesn’t equal effectiveness. Strategy is a field that is driven by what is inspiring rather than by what works. It seems that the main criterion for both an organization’s strategy and the tools and concepts by which it is made is that they are inspiring. Inspiration is great. But it is only a tiny part of what we need. The rest is hard work. It requires a lot of mundane activities, deep thinking and experimentation to realize effective strategy. And while inspiration is simple, the rest—and therefore major part—of strategy is not.
Simplification is useful. We always need to simplify things to make sense of them. But oversimplification is a problem. To quote Einstein on this, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” What we do in strategy, though, is simplifying things way beyond what is possible.
The conclusion that follows from breaking this myth is that we need to start appreciating complexity again in strategy. We need to allow strategies to be complex and adopt and develop more advanced strategy tools and methods that help understand and deal with the complexity of our organizations and the world around them.
Paraphrasing a key element of cybernetics and systems theory, we need “requisite complexity”. This means that, to be able to deal with the complexity around us, we need to embrace a sufficient level of complexity in our organizations, tools and way of thinking. Only then are we able to understand what is going on and formulate effective responses. In other words: we need complexity to beat complexity.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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