Why You May Need A Wicked Strategy

3D Circular maze


What do you do if you face a problem so complex that it can only be described as wicked?

Is it possible to confound competitors?


How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors

John Camilius, author of Wicked Strategies: How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors outlines a number of ways that managers can handle the most difficult problems. Camilius is the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Pittsburgh.


“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill


For those who don’t know your work, what is a wicked problem?

In the early seventies, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two professors of design and urban planning, recognized that there are certain problems that are not amenable to resolution by traditional, accepted problem-solving techniques. They evocatively labeled these problems as “wicked” and identified ten distinguishing characteristics. Ten characteristics are difficult to remember, and over the years, I have whittled them down to just five.  If a problem displays these five criteria, you can be pretty sure you are facing a wicked problem.Wicked Strategies John C. Camillus

The first characteristic is deceptively simple and requires some thought:  Is the problem one that is substantially without precedent, something that you have not encountered before?

Second, are there multiple significant stakeholders with conflicting values and priorities? You need to go beyond the traditional big three stakeholders—employees, customers and shareholders.  Non-government organizations, multiple layers of government, creditors, communities in which you are located, political parties in power and out of power are all becoming more significant and demanding.

Third, are there several causes and are they interactive and tangled?  For instance, the future of social media is driven by a complex brew of technology advancements in hardware and apps, changing demographics, evolving social and cultural mores, government regulations, privacy expectations, geopolitical developments, educational practices, disposable income, and economic and social mobility.


“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.” -Irwin Corey


Fourth, there is no sure way of knowing you have the right answer. Another way of phrasing this is that there is no stopping rule—you can continue searching indefinitely for a “better” answer.

Fifth, the understanding of what the “problem” is changes depending on the “solution” being considered.  In other words, the problem and the solution are interactive. For instance, entry into a country that does not permit foreign multi-brand retailers might be accomplished by creating a cash-and-carry model for small retailers or by being a minority partner with a local retailer or by entering an entirely new business employing a distinctive competency such as logistics. Each of these responses to the wicked problem of accessing the huge purchasing power of emerging economies’ populations creates a wholly different set of issues.

A note of warning may be in order. In the public policy arena, the wickedness of problems is hard to overlook. Problems such as immigration policy, violence against women, religious fundamentalism, and public education are overtly wicked. In the business world, however, the thing about wicked problems is that though they can show up anywhere, they are likely to be perceived as “tame” problems.

Wicked problems are certainly more common than most managers realize. Not recognizing that they were facing wicked problems, I believe, led to the dissolution of Westinghouse, the demise of Polaroid, and the decline of Kodak, RadioShack and Atari. Though wicked problems can occur anywhere, it is more likely than not that you will encounter wicked problems if you are a public company, operate globally, and are in a technology-driven business.


“Every threat to the status quo is an opportunity in disguise.” -Jay Samit


3 Megaforces Challenging Business

You talk about 3 megaforces that are challenging business. How do these trends help create wicked problems?

While there are a variety of forces and environmental factors that can create wicked problems, over the years I’ve identified three forces that are widely experienced which, in concert, are a major source of wicked problems. They are: the inevitability of globalization, the imperative of innovation, and the importance of shared value. The first two forces are well understood. Shared value, which has been brought to the attention of the managerial world by Michael Porter, is the notion that social benefit and economic value are synergistic. It also raises the issue of the appropriate sharing of value across diverse stakeholders.

The interactions of these three forces create strategic challenges that combine to create wicked problems. For instance, innovating to meet the needs of unserved, low-income customers across the world results—as the guru of disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen has affirmed—in disruptive technologies that can upend industries. Innovation also creates changes that differentially impact stakeholders, creating the likelihood of conflict between stakeholders as the organization transforms. The extreme complexity and uncertainty embodied in the global economy coupled with the conflicting priorities of multiple stakeholders creates unknowable futures. This roiling cauldron of disruptive technologies, conflicted stakeholders and unknowable futures is what spawns wicked problems.

I like to illustrate the interaction of these forces in a Venn diagram.


Three Mega-Forces and their Strategic Challenge

These three forces can interact to create wicked problems in any context. Of course, other environmental forces can also breed wicked problems, but I have chosen to focus on these three because they are so ubiquitous and powerful.

I believe there are business contexts or “industries” that will be breeding grounds for wicked problems. Health, software, information technology, fossil fuels, water, automobiles, and public transportation are prime examples. Technological innovation, drastically changing regulations, geopolitical developments, and changing notions of social responsibility make these industries particularly prone to encountering wicked problems that demand that firms develop and deploy wicked strategies. 


“The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” -William Ellery Channing


How to Deal With Uncertainty

How to Achieve Execution Excellence

Balanced Scorecard

What’s the best way to drive individual performance?

How does a leader assure enterprise success?

Is it possible to close performance gaps to improve execution?


Making Strategy Work

In Execution Excellence: Making Strategy Work Using the Balanced Scorecard  Sanjiv Anand answers these and other questions.

Sanjiv Anand has 30 years of global experience in consulting, helping CEOs and boards develop transformational strategies. Currently the Chairman of Cedar Management Consulting International, his book is full of his operational and strategic insight on how to manage human capital. He is an expert on the Balanced Scorecard.

I recently asked Sanjiv to share some of his experience about what does and doesn’t work in implementing strategy.


“If you can’t execute the strategy, it’s not worth having.” –Sanjiv Anand


Why is strategy more relevant than ever before?

While the world continues to provide opportunities to grow, it is not without challenges. First, customer expectations around product, relationship, and brand have risen over years driven by extremely high levels of competitiveness. This has resulted in the need for firms to develop multiple strategies that address different customer segments. Additionally, competition is now local, regional, national, and global. This requires a more nuanced and complex competitive strategy. All of this also drives complexity in process and people. Global organizations or markets require processes to work well in a centralized and decentralized manner. Lastly organizations have become complex as even medium-sized enterprises can have employees across the world. All of this has made strategy, and more importantly the execution of strategy, more relevant than ever before.


“Strategy is about execution.” –Sanjiv Anand


What are the elements of a strategy that works?

Never build a strategy that can’t be executed. The problem starts there. Most organizations build strategies that are complex, difficult to understand, and hard to execute. A strategy that works needs to be balanced. It needs to focus on the drivers of financial performance rather than just the financial outcome. People and technology help drive process excellence. Process excellence helps meet or exceed customer expectations. And meeting customer expectations delivers financial performance. Therefore, all of these elements are critical for strategy that works—combined with a clear sense of ownership across the leadership team, a set of performance measures that are lead indicators to performance, and a set of targets that focus performance and don’t overwhelm. Focus, balance, ownership, measurement, and the right targets are the elements that make strategy work.


“Parallel processing is key to a successful strategy.” –Sanjiv Anand


Understand Cultural Differences

What are the cultural differences to be aware of in terms of measurement?

Execution Excellence by Sanjiv AnandIn the U.S., measurement motivates. In many parts of the world, measurement scares. Why? The U.S. has a culture that celebrates individual performance. This is also reflected in how organizations assess and reward people. Drive individual performance to drive enterprise performance is the typical formula; therefore, most executives in U.S. corporations are used to the idea of being measured and being held accountable individually.

Many parts of the world are different. In Japan it’s about team performance, and therefore team measurement is more important. In many parts of Asia, especially India, measurement is generally not part of the culture. Individual performance, or rather lack of it, is not something for public display or discussion. In Europe, the role of the corporation transcends the objective of only meeting shareholder expectations to also focusing on the greater good of society, so measurement of individual performance gets more complicated.

The broader point here is not to suggest that measurement should not be attempted, but the approach to measurement needs to be customized to motivate, not demotivate’ which is the objective in the first place.


“A positive strategy should focus on innovation.” –Sanjiv Anand


Don’t Make these Mistakes In Setting Targets

7 Corporate Strategy Myths That Are Limiting Your Potential

Strategy Myths

7 Corporate Strategy Myths

Dr. Chuck Bamford’s new book, The Strategy Mindset, is a practical guide for creating a corporate strategy. Having read more books on strategy than I can remember, I particularly like this one. As I read the book, there were times I found myself arguing with the author. At other times, I was nodding. Still at other times, I found myself with immediately actionable ideas to improve the process at my own organization. And that’s why I enjoyed the read so much.

I think the most controversial part of his book is likely the myths section, where he takes apart existing myths of corporate strategy.


“Strategy is about making decisions that will impact the company in the future.” -Chuck Bamford


1. People Are Not A Competitive Advantage

Let’s talk about the myths.

First, you say that people are not a competitive advantage. You argue that almost all employees are interchangeable. Good employees are just “table stakes.” Is it not possible to have employees who, on average, are better than the competition?

It flies in the face of so many beliefs that it is just hard to accept. Employees are VERY important as the way that business delivers to customers. However, the moment that you actually believe that your employees are smarter than your competitors’ is the moment that your competitors will start beating you in the market. You have the same (or relatively the same) collection of amazing employees, capable employees, and poor employees as your competitors. All the HR processes in the world today have not changed that dynamic in companies. The employees that you have working in your company are a combination of luck (the biggest factor), HR practices, networking, and did I mention luck!

Bamford CoverI’m not trying to be divisive here, but most of your customers do not generally care (or if they care at all, it is slight) who takes care of their business needs as long as the needs are taken care of. This does not apply to every employee in a company, just most. At every company I have ever worked with or for, there is a contingent of “franchise” employees. Those are employees who, if they left the company, would impact the success of that company quite substantially. We all know who these folks are, and if executives are smart, they take care of these employees to ensure that they stay with the organization. These “franchise” employees are not just the customer-facing employees; they reside throughout an organization.


“Employees are not your competitive advantage.” -Chuck Bamford


2. SWOT is NOT Strategy

Second, you are not a fan of the SWOT. What’s wrong with the way most organizations use it?

SWOT is the single biggest impediment to doing real strategy that exists, and it exists because certain big consulting firms continue to use it with their clients, and it makes clients “feel good” without really having to do strategy.

SWOT was an attempt to bring some structure to the topic, and as a conceptual approach, it is still fairly robust. Unfortunately, many authors, academics, and practitioners decided that SWOT was an analysis tool and a means for a company to develop its strategy. SWOT is NOT strategy, and it is not an analysis tool.

Anyone can create a SWOT. It is grounded in your own biases and view of the world. In the end, a SWOT is simply the opinion of the person or group filling it out.


“SWOT is the single biggest impediment to doing real strategy.” -Chuck Bamford

How to Build A Customer Driven Growth Engine

Patron feminism; female customer care protection customer personalization individual customer CRM social customer service customer retention customer relationship care for employees marketing niche segmentation concepts.

Customer Culture

Not too long ago, I spoke with Jeanne Bliss about the 7 Inhibitors to Customer Driven Growth.  Jeanne’s new book Chief Customer Officer 2.0: How to Build Your Customer-Driven Growth Engine is a success roadmap for leaders wanting to build a customer-focused organization.

Jeanne also answered my questions about how to establish a customer culture, social media strategy, leadership, earning the right to grow, and establishing a sense of urgency:


Establishing a Customer Centric Culture

“Culture is the action, not the words.” How do you connect corporate aspirations with employees’ actions?

For customer-driven work to be transformative and stick, it must be more than a customer manifesto. Commitment to customer-driven growth is proven with action and choices. To engender this culture, people need examples. They need proof.


“Culture is the action, not the words.” -Jeanne Bliss


Customer culture is talked about by many leaders but misunderstood by most organizations. “Commitment” to customers must be attached to deliberate operational behavior, such as, “We will go to market only after these 12 customer requirements are met” or “Every launch must meet these five conditions, which the field requires for success. We won’t launch without them, no exceptions.”  People inside organizations need to see the commitment translated to actions that they will feel proud to follow and emulate.

Moving well past words, a deliberate and united set of leadership actions and behaviors practiced in unison is required.

One of the first activities we often undertake to unite leaders is to employ the journey framework to build an operational “code of conduct.”


codeofconduct (1)


How to Transform Your Business With Program Management

Last Piece Of A Puzzle

Running a successful corporate program will call on almost every leadership principle you can imagine. From defining the problem to measuring success, leaders emerge through the process. In fact, I personally promoted a leader based on the leadership traits I witnessed during such a change project.

Satish Subramanian is a Principal at M Squared Consulting, a SolomonEdwards company. He has over 25 years of experience in technology consulting and advises companies on business transformation. His new book, Transforming Business with Program Management provides the necessary steps to ensure solid program management. I recently asked him about his work.


“Planning without action is futile, action without planning is fatal.” -C. Fitchner


Success Starts Upfront 

“Success starts upfront” is all about problem definition.  I have seen this numerous times in organizations. One of the most egregious examples was when it was clear the group was working on two very different problems.  Neither side even realized it until months into it.  Why is defining the problem so important?  Would you share an example from your work?

The problem definition step is a critical one in the early stages of the business transformation journey.  This step ensures the problem is well understood and agreed upon by stakeholders prior to expending significant organizational resources for a long period to solve it. It positions the transformational change program for success, facilitates the delivery of agreed strategic objectives, and realizes the transformational vision.

One example is that of a well-known biotech company that outsourced its finance, accounting, and payroll functions to an off-shore location as part of a strategic initiative to reduce cost.  In hindsight, the organization realized it should have redesigned the business processes to overcome significant process gaps and then consider outsourcing. The inadequate upfront definition of the problem resulted in the goal of cost reduction not getting met in the designated time frames.


“No matter how good the team, if we’re not solving the right problem, the project fails.” –Woody Williams


What’s your definition of program management?

Program management is the alignment and integration of multiple dimensions (strategy, people, process, technology, structure, and measurement) to execute organization transformation strategies, deliver the transformed future state, and achieve the desired business outcomes.


“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” -Larry Elder


Would you share the program management life cycle phases?

Program management life cycle is the four-phase approach to drive a business transformation program from start to finish.  This life cycle enables and sustains business transformation by articulating vision, developing an integrated transformation program plan, driving the plan, removing execution barriers, delivering planned business outcomes, and realizing business benefits.  The illustration highlights the four phases and the eight processes that constitute the program management life cycle.

The four phases are:

  • Phase One – Set the stage
  • Phase Two – Decide what to do
  • Phase Three – Make it happen
  • Phase Four – Make it stick


Copyright 2015 by Satish P Subramanian Copyright 2015 by Satish P Subramanian; Used by Permission