Negative & Planning
A simple exercise
I hope that all is well with you and yours.
Another week of chaos; just six days to go before we, along with all of our earthly possessions, have to be out of what has been our home for the past 17 years. I now live amid endless stacks of cardboard boxes, as if sleeping, eating, and working in a postmodernist art installation devised to illustrate the burdens of a consumerist society. To be fair, it would have been rather fitting; as anyone who has moved house with a partner knows only too well, we tend to cling on to that which is ours as if our lives depended on it, yet throw away that which is not without so much as a second thought.
To paraphrase George Carlin, your own shit is stuff. Other people’s stuff is shit.
Of course, occasionally, people whose shit really is shit realize your stuff is not. So, they might be inclined to borrow it. Provided they do not claim ownership, it is usually not a problem. But some will take your stuff and pass it off as their own shit – at which point it becomes theft.
This has happened to me a fair few times over the course of my career, but the recent attempts to take the body of work that James and I have built over several years and publish its culminations without reference or annotation rank among the most arrogant. Some people apparently cannot climb the corporate ladder without stepping on the shoulders of others.
Do not get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with building on someone else’s reasoning. Insights (a topic which we will discuss more next week) are often revelations born out of reconfiguration. Only once the requisite pieces of knowledge have been revealed can one draw upon them to create a new picture.
Similarly, using someone else’s work that one considers valuable is just standard practice. Repackaging what others have done without reference, however, is not adding anything of value. On the contrary, it ensures intellectual depreciation. And while those who have little cerebral capacity may benefit from dumbing down discourse, everyone else loses out.
Rant over, let us begin
Last week, we discussed apophatic strategy, i.e., strategy by negation. Instead of explicitly stating what one might do, and thereby implicitly what one might not do, one does the opposite (explicitly stating what one might not do, and implicitly what one might do). Although the shift may appear minor, it is anything but. It moves us from robustness to resilience by enhancing our ability to adapt to change.
It also, as I noted, forces us to shift from foresight to insight, from a distant imaginary future to the messy reality of the present – and how one might maximize its evolutionary potential.
As it happens, this has the added benefit of increasing insight generation by itself. People ingrained in the positive strategic planning mindset (in lack of better words) tend to be heads down; focused on the task at hand, certainly, but ignoring new information in favor of routine, downplaying anything that jeopardizes sticking to the plan. Conversely, people who are encouraged to be curious, challenge ideas, think creatively and adapt to context often notice things previously unconsidered, and thus reveal new and improved ways of doing things.
An exercise in negative planning
Of course, positive planning has long been the default strategy modus operandi, despite it seldom amounting to much more than programming, viz., activities planned in advance. Moving away from it, however little, will inevitably encounter resistance from those comfortable with the status quo. Consequently, it may be best to take small steps while transforming a company’s approach to strategic management.
One such step is implement techniques that allow for what one might call negative planning. Gary Klein’s pre-mortem method, which typically is used in risk assessment, provides one example. It is an easy-to-run exercise that some of you will already be entirely familiar with, but others may not.
(Ideally, it should be run at a strategy retreat or what certain companies call “planning season”; participants will then be familiar with the suggested approach, but it will not already have become concrete.)
Begin by asking those present to think of a dystopian future, where everything for the company has gone to hell. The plan was the culprit. That much is certain. Then ask them to take two minutes to write down the reasons why.
Note that the order matters. As long-time subscribers will recall from our discussion of the future backwards technique, it is much harder to lie in reverse. Imagining a calamitous situation and having to go back in time, so to speak, creates a significantly larger cognitive load than reasoning forward. “What caused the (imaginary) failure?” is thus a more valuable question than “how might this fail?”.
Once everyone has finished, go around the room and ask the participants to, one by one, read out their top reason. Crucially, each example has to be different from the previous, and none should be discussed in detail – the point is to keep a steady pace. Write them down on a whiteboard.
Klein suggests starting with the company leader. This is often a good idea as it can encourage transparency, but I have seen it lead to other employees changing their “top failure” to be versions of whatever said leader suggests. The plan is also likely to come from senior management in the first place. An alternative approach is therefore to do the opposite. Having the leader come last can also send a message about the worth of everyone else’s opinions (allowing anyone to dominate the exercise is a faux pas).
Either way, you now have a list of potential ways in which the strategic plan might go awry. For the purposes of negative planning, this can be sufficient – it inevitably leads to clarity about what not to do. However, there are two more items that you may want to consider.
Firstly, each participant may take another two minutes to grade the various suggestions on perceived likelihood, impact, and ease of prevention.
Secondly, they may take another two minutes to suggest potential solutions.
Of course, both of these can be contextualized using Cynefin. If everyone agrees on what to do, the issue is likely simple and there should be no reason not to see to it immediately. If there are many competing hypotheses, odds are that one is dealing with something that is complex, which means that it may require a different approach than any that can be put into a traditional strategic plan.
Many positives from a single negative
The desired outcome is a positive strategic plan informed by negative instruction; we have identified the most important situations to avoid based on our understanding of the present context. That is not to say that other issues will not arise, but we should at least have avoided many of the dumbest ones (remember Charlie Munger’s advice). It is for this reason that I dislike the labelling of pre-mortems as “planning to fail”. Au contraire, we are planning to avoid failure, to not do certain things, which stands in contrast to planning to do other things.
The exercise has been shown to have a number of benefits beyond the strategy itself though. It can mitigate pluralistic ignorance, eliminate overconfidence, and reduce misinterpretation – while it promotes precisely the curiosity, discovery, and creativity that we sought in the first place. As such, it is a great step towards improving adaptive capabilities, strategic and otherwise.
At the end of the proverbial day, just because something was not predicted, it does not mean that it was not imagined. It may just have been that, in the traditional top-bottom view of strategy and strategic management, the thought was never heard. By utilizing pre-mortems and building towards a more adaptive approach, we can change that.
Next week, we are going to dig deeper into what insights are. Until then, have the loveliest of weekends.
Onwards and upwards,
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