Nudging Embodied Strategy

The whole concept of the cone of embodied strategy is a bit depressing, to be honest. What’s a mature organization to do? Curl up and cry? Surrender to obsolescence? Maybe. But any statement of complete inevitability gives me pause. Though the force of habits is strong, we all have seen the evidence of habits being broken and people – including ourselves – changing themselves.

It is my experience that just like humans, organizations tend to feel the pain of being constricted by their own habits. There’s consternation about becoming too bureaucratic, moving too slow, or vocal concerns about siloing. It is usually that pain that creates opportunities for becoming aware of the embodied strategy. In a larger organization, there are nearly always moments, the junction points in time where a change becomes possible. Speaking in silly physics, the pain creates excess of potential energy that can be converted into kinetic energy of change with a relatively small nudge.

The key here is recognizing that nudges aren’t some magic thing. “Yay! We’re going to nudge things now! Let’s nudge everything!” isn’t going to get us very far. Nudging is a particular kind of tool that originates in Donella Meadows’ notion of leverage points. For a nudge to be effective, we must understand a) the place to which the nudge can be applied and b) the direction in which the system (our organization) is willing to move.

Both of these pose questions to what appears to be unsolvable problems: what works as a potent nudge for an organization today is unlikely to do the same for a different organization – or even that same organization in the past or future. This can be quite discouraging and disorienting, and frankly, seem kooky and like consultant-speak. Because they stem from the unsolvable class of problems, working with nudges is always going to have that flavor. They hang in tension between rational and woowoo.

To make this whole nudging story more concrete, let’s look at one facet of embodied strategy: the means by which the tacit knowledge percolates.  In my experience, the embodied strategy tends to have roots in there. Put differently, the communication structure of the organization defines the kind of embodied strategy it ends up with. All I am doing here is echoing Conway’s law: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Put next to the classic understanding of strategy, the causality may feel backward. Usually, we pay attention to team structure and communication as things that are subservient to strategic work. We launch reorgs and set up new meetings, slide decks, mailing lists, and program spreadsheets to set the strategy, right? I suspect that the relationship is much more reciprocal. Yes, when we are able to change how the organization communicates, its embodied strategy changes as well. However, I am skeptical of the idea that imposing a new communication pattern on a team will do anything of a kind. More than likely, efforts like this will result in the all-too-common outcome of a failed top-down initiative: the embodied strategy and the communication structure in which it’s rooted will neatly weave around the change, unaffected.

To get less frustrating results, we are better off examining how tacit knowledge seems to spread across the organization. Look for the spaces and channels that thrive. They may not have a clear purpose and even look like just people loitering about (remember the stereotypical watercooler?). Once these are discerned, see if there’s friction. What constrains them? And what effect do these constraints have on the sharing of tacit knowledge? Due to these constraints, is there an unmet need that perhaps could be addressed in a different way?

These questions are difficult to answer. But once we have at least an inkling of what’s going on, we can start experimenting with nudges. The presence of friction and the pressure of constraints indicates appetite for change: the system is willing to shift, awaiting our nudge. One of my colleagues recently shared that creating a cross-functional chat room was one of their greatest buck-for-bang career accomplishments. Just the mere fact of establishing such a room led to a noticeable improvement in collaboration across several teams, creating a place for having conversations that simply didn’t happen before.

I’ve had a very similar experience a while back, when a sudden departure of key senior leaders left everyone on the team shocked and rather lost. I didn’t know anything about nudges or systems back then, but following my intuition, I created a chat room titled “<team name> Kin”. The room acted as the figurative flag to rally around and helped sub-teams come together. Many years and several teams later, I was delighted to learn that the chat room still exists, still active, numbered in hundreds of participants, and having successfully survived the churn of chat software migration.

We might be tempted to summarize the learning from these experiences as “let’s create chat rooms for everyone and call them <team name> Kin!” And indeed, I’ve tried this recipe multiple times – with meager results. Looking back, in all cases, I followed my intuition about unlocking the sharing of tacit knowledge, but neglected to consider a system’s willingness to move. Both examples that worked did so because they were nudging the organization’s communication structure out of a constricted, miserable state. They were unlocking a metaphorical spring and releasing the accumulated potential energy.  In my less successful attempts, I was expecting the nudge to act as some sort of energy generator, and that’s not what nudges do.

At this point, you might be going:“Dimitri, you can’t be serious. You started this post talking about strategy and somehow veered into … making chat rooms? This nudge thing doesn’t appear very strategic.” It’s true – it doesn’t. Nudges that end up shifting an organization’s cone of embodied strategy often don’t look like much. They don’t have the grandeur and vigor of broad initiatives. And that is all right. A robust, well-communicated strategy will work exceptionally well as long as its destination fits into the cone. Otherwise, we must be looking for nudges. 

Finding the right nudge can be freakishly hard. Even now, much more comfortable with my system thinker’s hat, I still find many of my nudges to be ineffective. What I tell myself is that I just need to do better than random. To get there:

  • Invest into learning the system you’re in. Keep looking for places where nudges can be applied.
  • Avoid the trap of imagining that the system is a machine that could be completely understood. Think of it as a garden: it’s a little bit different today than it was yesterday.
  • Look for friction and building pressure, where potential energy seems to be trapped. These tell me where the system is willing to change and a nudge may be effective.
  • Don’t bet on one nudge. Prepare to try many times. Be playful. Once in a while, give into intuition despite what logic might be stating. There’s a neat safe-to-fail experiment framing that helps me to get into the right mindset.

Changing the embodied strategy of a large organization is not impossible. In some ways, large organizations can change more rapidly than small ones, because they tend to amass incredible amounts of potential energy even in brief periods of stuckness. However, unless approached with a system thinker’s eye, they will appear to resist change with such strength that makes them look made of solid, immovable stone. Which is why the effect of a nudge can seem like magic when it works.

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