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  • Writer's pictureKrzysztof 'Chris' Daniel

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy in the light of Wardley Mapping

Preface: Not so long ago, Holger shared his list of strategy books that everyone should read. Others contributed, and we got a list of 29 strategy books that everyone should read. I think it would be fascinating to go over that list and look at them in the light of Wardley Mapping.

The book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (later GSBS) by Richard Rumelt introduces the concept of a Strategy Kernel: diagnosis, guiding principles & coherent actions. This looks very similar to the Wardley Mapping Strategy Cycle:

The GSBS seems to recognise the importance of situational awareness

The Guiding Policy and Coherent Actions are equivalent of crossing the river by feeling the stones; once you know your direction, you try to adapt to the environment as you go. However, the concept of Diagnosis seems to be slightly off.

First of all, if you add learning loops to the diagram above, you will get something like this:

Notice different position of learning loops.

GSBS strongly advocates a concerted effort to achieve goals while putting not enough of attention on the validity of those goals in the first place. And the text of the book confirms the criticial role of the leader sitting in the warroom:

A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.
An important duty of any leader is to absorb a large part of that complexity and ambiguity, passing on to the organization a simpler problem—one that is solvable.

Those quotes show a lot of faith into an individual ability to analyse any environment. Rumelt seems to recognise that fact because he noted that sometimes it is not possible to complete a diagnosis. Still, in such a case, instead of experimenting to cope with uncertainty, his recommendation for the leader is to simply pick the direction. This can be read as an attempt to force the leader to risk doing something, which is the mapping world recognised as a 'bias towards action', but it is not a remedy for uncertainty.

Personally, I find coping with uncertainty being the biggest weakness of the GSBS book. Rumelt makes a point that a good strategy has to be an educated judgement, which looks like putting all your eggs into one basket without asking the question 'what if I am wrong?'. In my eyes, it is a very short path to creating a really bad strategy.

There is a simple trick to reconcile GSBS with Wardley Mapping - if you want to apply the Strategy Kernel, you have to slightly modify the purpose of diagnosis - it is aim should not be to simplify the complexity of reality but rather mitigating the impact of complexity on the organisation at hand.

Bar the Diagnose part, the book is really good. I like the descriptions and examples of bad strategies, and I do think they greatly complement Wardley Mapping. My favourite symptom of a bad strategy is called 'Fluff' - when people use big, abstract words and let others to translate those into actions (which is often NOT possible).

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