Generating ideas and strategy coherence

I’ve been talking about dandelions and elephants for a while now, and yes, it may seem like I’ve gone a bit nuts. Oh well. It’s just that it’s such a good framing and I keep finding uses for it nearly every day. When applied to ideas, r/K-selection strategies seem to be uncommonly generative.

It all begins with a question: what kind of new ideas do we want to produce? Do we want a collection of different, independent ideas or do we want each idea to improve upon some larger idea?

What I like about these questions is that they are objective-agnostic. They don’t ask “what do you want to achieve?” or “where do you want to go?” Instead, they require us to choose the means to generate ideas. And strategy is all about the means. In the field where I work, strategy is also about generating new ideas.

Here’s the thing. In software engineering (as likely in many technology fields), more often than not, we don’t know what the path to our objective will look like. Heck, most of the time we don’t even have a clear sense of what the objective will look like. This is assuredly not a “let’s plan all steps in advance” process. The fog of uncertainty is right there in front of us. 

If we are to navigate toward it, we must be prepared to shift course, to adjust, to learn on the spot about the next step, make it, learn again, and so on. And to do this well, we need new ideas. Our strategy must count on us continuously producing these new ideas – and applying them. In this way, my ramblings about dandelions and elephants aren’t fun side metaphors. They are the essence of business.

Summoning my inner Rumelt and putting things perhaps overly bluntly, an organization can only be effective at setting a strategy and actually following through when it is intentional about creating conditions for generating ideas. While it’s not the only crucial ingredient, the organization that doesn’t have it will suffer from strategic incoherence.

A team may accept as a truism that bottom-up cultures are superior to top-down cultures. And yes, if we are setting out to explore a large space of unknown untapped potential, then we probably want to create conditions for a dandelion strategy. The bottom-up culture has them: individual incentives (Interest), small teams, short-term objectives (Legibility), independent decision-making (Velocity) and non-hierarchical structure and mobility (Access).

However, when we’re endeavoring to care for one big idea, we likely want the conditions to encourage the elephant strategy: more structured and predictable organization and incentives (Stability), care and accountability in decision-making (Breadth), comprehensive processes and long-term thinking (Rigor), and concentrated points of organizational control (Power). These are a depiction of the top-down culture.

If we set out to do something that calls for an elephant strategy, yet the culture we have is a bottom-up one, we will have strategically incoherent outcomes (I called them the “pappus elephants” in the previous post). Our bottom-up culture will suddenly snag us like a trap, with coordination headwinds becoming universally felt and recognized. Things that worked really well for us before, like emphasizing individual impact in our incentive structures, will become a source of pain: why are our teammates acting in such a self-interested way?! Well… maybe because that was a good thing when we needed a dandelion strategy?

Even when the need to pursue a multi-year objective becomes existential, the dandelion conditions will keep blowing us off course: multi-year ideas will be simply swept away by the churn of the quarterly objective-setting and obsessive focus on individual impact. In a dandelion culture, when given a chance to make a dandelion move, most folks will take it. When strategy is incoherent, one can be a superstar while directly contributing to the team’s demise. 

Perhaps even more bizarrely, by all accounts of witnesses, these efforts will look like elephants – until they disappear in a puff. It is in everyone’s interest to create a perception that they are indeed operating in an elephant factory, despite all the dandelion moves they are making. 

When caught in this condition inconsistency, the long-term projects within this organization will inevitably find themselves in a weird cycle: set out to do big things, fail to articulate them clearly, struggle to do something very ambitious, get distracted, then quietly discontinue the effort, unable to examine what happened due to the deep sense of shame that follows – only to try again soon thereafter. When underlying conditions allow only dandelion-like moves, trying to choose an elephant strategy is a tough proposition.

The variables and symptoms might vary, but the equation will remain the same. If they sound at all familiar, consider asking different questions to get to a more productive conversation about incentives, culture, structure, and practices. What are our current conditions for generating new ideas? Do they lean dandelion or elephant? How might they be inconsistent with our desired outcomes?

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