- 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.
The QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1873 to alleviate a mechanical problem with typewriters contemporary to that time. The metal bars that held the keys would get stuck together as individuals typed. To correct this problem, the most used letters were spaced apart so the bars would not stick to each other. That’s the only reason that the QWERTY keyboard was invented.
As the typewriter has become obsolete, different keyboard layouts have been introduced, none of which has been adopted. But why? The Dvorak key arrangement was designed to enhance the speed of the typist. There was even an ABCDEF layout that was designed to break us of our addiction to the QWERTY style keyboard.
We become so accustomed to using things, systems, or processes that we sometimes lose sight of why we are using them. The concept of path dependence is something that has a very large influence on the success of strategic planning. When we use one of these things we are accustomed to, and subsequently follow a predetermined course of action or behavior, there almost certainly has been a “critical juncture” at some point in the past. At that moment, we made a decision that set a specific trajectory leading to this predetermined course.
This trajectory and the decision that set it in motion are generally based on legacy knowledge, and, from the moment of that decision, a behavioral bias was formed. Seldom do we make decisions that we do not have supporting data on, such as with our ability to be effective in completing skilled tasks. These tasks require legacy knowledge of what steps make that task successful.
If I were to ask you why you use a QWERTY keyboard, you might answer that it’s the most readily available, and it’s how you learned to type, and it doesn’t make sense for you to change. Fair enough. But if I could demonstrate that one of the alternate layouts would improve your results dramatically, would you change to one of these new layouts? Likely not; because you’d be breaking a convention and deconstructing the hardwired “critical juncture” and resulting path dependence that has developed as a result of that decision. Your decision to use the QWERTY layout is so far in the past that it would cause a dramatic decrease in your ability to be effective if you were to change now.
But is that really true?
In strategic planning, there is a strong bias toward using conventions to achieve results. I am not arguing that you should not use those conventions from the standpoint of best practices and institutional knowledge. However, organizations should use caution here, and watch for the biases presented by path dependence that may be woven into organizational practices.
This is another example of the importance of asking “why” organizations do the things that they do. A majority of the population likely does not know why they use a QWERTY keyboard or what the origin of that key layout is. The same is probably true of ingrained organizational strategies.
As you develop your strategic plan, it is important to consider the past in the context of what was effective in a way that is germane toward developing a strategy for the future. Simply sticking to a path because it conforms to what builds upon what already exists will not always yield optimal results; in fact, it may lead you to make decisions that will alter your course in a damaging or negative way.
As with the problem with the metal bars that QWERTY was designed to correct, so must the considerations be in designing the optimal framework for strategic planning – or you might be trying to solve a problem that hasn’t been a problem for almost 60 years.
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