Joe Benesh is a Senior Architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.
When I was a kid, my father bought me a cassette of a recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Dad enjoyed classical music and that rubbed off of me; Aaron Copland especially. Lincoln Portrait is one of my all-time favorite works. Peter and the Wolf came up in a playlist that I was listening to recently while I happened to be reading an article about evidence based strategy and my mind started to wonder if there were overlaps between one and the other.
I read up on trends in strategic planning. It seems like every year there is a hot new thing people want to try as an emerging thought on how to make organizations work more efficiently. Some seem to work, others do not. Evidence based strategy seems obvious – base decisions and actions on information that exists in some sort of reference format. Recently though, I have noticed that this is not the norm.
“Blue Sky” strategy is actually the most common thing I see emerge in planning sessions. The tendency to want to start from scratch or “think outside the box” can be so overwhelming at critical moments when strategy is being developed, but that can lead to very important and relevant historical data being neglected or omitted completely.
This leads to several problems that can have adverse effects on planning efforts. The first of which is that there are really very few original ideas out there in terms of organizational development. This isn’t because of a lack of innovation or anything negative, it’s just that some really smart people have established some best practices that work, and there is a good chance that even within your organization that things have been tried and have either worked or failed. Remember what your organization excels at, and don’t succumb to new and completely untested (or worse yet - tested and failed) ideas, based solely on enthusiasm.
It’s important not to fall to the “new blood, old idea” model that a lot of groups fall into. New enthusiasm for an idea that has already been tried and has not been successful should not re-enter the conversation unless there is some critical variable that has changed or new information has emerged that makes the failed model viable. Thinking outside of the box is important, but sometimes it’s more important to remember what is actually in the box to begin with.
Peter’s observations in Prokofiev’s work are based on what he sees – what already exists; the bird escapes the cat, the duck, frustrated by the interaction with the bird, is eaten by the wolf. Peter ultimately disregards his grandfather’s warning and catches the wolf with the aid of the bird. So, what does any of that have to do with evidence based strategy?
The initial steps in the story are about trial and error and what resources exist. Peter’s grandfather sets the initial parameter (don’t go into the meadow, or the wolf will eat you) and peter observes interactions between the animals and determines what resources he can use to ultimately formulate and execute his end goals. The experience of seeing how the animals in the story interact and based on what he determines is the best course of action forward, he executes a successful plan. From Peter’s perspective, maybe he initially thought that running out into the meadow was just fine – blue sky strategy - but later decided that line of thinking would have likely led to a much shorter story, with a far more negative ending. As for his grandfather, with the benefit of his experiences, likely knew of many other boys who ran out into the meadow and were eaten - Peter seems to have taken this evidence into account in his final plan.
When you set out on formulating a strategy, remember to base decisions on observations and evidence. Best practices and established norms can ultimately build a robust, well-conceived path forward, allowing for innovation, increased efficiency, and bolstered effectiveness.