The metaphor-driven strategy trap

The problem with strategy is that it implies predictions about the future. Urban strategies at the turn of the twentieth century were dominated by horses and yet just 30 years later many of the same organisations were seriously expecting flying cars in their near future. How wrong both assumptions were shows how strategy and prediction is a fraught business!

This can be solved, to an extent, by creating scenarios for the future and analysing how a business strategy will align with each of these. But even then, each scenario is, necessarily, little more than a context for business. Real events will quickly make these scenarios seem naïve.

Arguably, the biggest uncertainty is technology. Like the predictions on the future of horses and flying cars, it is hard to know what will be developed or when. What isn’t so obvious is that the design and form factor of technology is often just as important in making strategic decisions. Time and time again, solutions with nearly the same features and functions can produce dramatically different business outcomes.

It is too easy to think of business strategy as only a set of objectives together with a credible set of activities to deliver on those goals. While the vision might be clear, it is almost impossible to fully take into account the opportunity of technology when much is yet to be invented and what there is could be applied in a myriad of different ways.

The business strategist might describe the opportunity to better compete through the automation of existing mortgage processes, streamlining phone orders or removing manual expense claim processing. These assumptions have encouraged leadership teams to ask the Chief Information Officer to follow-up the business strategy with a supporting technology strategy. The result is usually incremental and is responsible for “metaphor-based” solutions.

A metaphor-based solution implements technology in a way that tries to emulate the physical world. It is why we still refer to “books” on e-readers, “signatures” on electronic documents and workflows largely operate as if a single record was moving around the organisation. When strategists define the future in terms of existing business models, technologists respond by simply digitising real world objects.

There are better ways than a digital signature to confirm a client’s agreement through continuous engagement, terms and conditions don’t need to be a one-off legal document and increasingly we don’t want to consume media, including books, in traditional forms. People respond to great design and useful solutions iteratively. It took a while for social media to take-off, but even from the start, the idea of new communication forms was popular. The key is constant experimentation.

I’ve lost count of the number of times we talk about experimenting and “failing fast” but it is true, the best organisations learn by doing. To avoid the metaphor trap, strategy has to be iterative with business and technology strategies being developed in tandem. The CIO has to be as much a strategist as the Chief Strategy Officer needs to be a technologist.

While both the business and technology strategies can propose engaging with customers and staff using solutions that are emerging, subtle design innovation in their implementation will substantially change the outcome. This is why leading retailers and banks, for example, jealously guard, sometimes through patents, even quite simple innovations in the way customers click on their websites.

A technology strategy that is developed as an afterthought can deliver on the features requested by the business strategy but will seldom do much to really move the organisation forward. Even worse, in realising the needs as envisioned by the business strategy it will have to force fit available solutions to their parameters when, with a few changes to approach, the business needs and technology could lead to a design breakthrough.

The cost of almost every solution from public transport ticketing through to warehousing would be an order of magnitude less if the requirements were designed around the technology rather than contorting data models and digital interfaces to replicate fares and business rules that were originally created for paper and pen.

Perhaps it is time to turn things on their head and start with the vision for technology and develop a business strategy that maximises its impact. At the very least business and technology strategies are inseparable.

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