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The humanness of strategy

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 1 November 2017

Identifying, pursuing and enabling positive change presents a critical challenge for both individuals and organisations.

On the one hand, we know that change, improvement and adaptation are critical. The world around us isn't standing still waiting for us to be comfortable with change. Stagnation and sameness breed irrelevance and decline. On the other hand, change and imagination invoke risk and the potential for another sort of failure. On the one hand, we are innately creative and aspire to make things better. On the other, we are also innately self-protective and fearful of the unknown.

In the introduction to their new book, Blue Ocean Shift, blue ocean strategy authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, make this observation: "although we all are replete with creative energy and resilience, at our core, most of us are also incredibly tender and vulnerable. Without the confidence to act, few will venture down a new path, no matter how clear the road map. We aspire to make a difference, yet at the same time fear we cannot."

Not that you need to be a strategist to work this out. An eighth grade student named Sarah made this observation: "Creativity is a risk. You're afraid to take that part of you and put it out where people can judge you. Your creativity is you, it's a part of you; and when they judge you it really hurts."

Overcoming the natural fears and resistance to change may be easier for some than others, but we all have to prudently deal with the reality of safety's natural appeal - and its perils.

"The dangers of life are infinite," noted the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "and among them is safety."

And it's this challenge of safety versus risk that Kim and Mauborgne focus on as one of the three "key components of a successful Blue Ocean Shift". (The essence of blue ocean strategy approach is finding nondisruptive areas of opportunity in currently uncontested areas - expanding opportunities rather than simply competing for fixed markets.)

They stress the vital role of "a humanistic process, something we have come to call 'humanness' in the process, which inspires and builds people's confidence to own and drive the process for effective execution."

They note that "while most strategy work does not delve into the human side of organizations, yours should". Their research shows that "the two most common practices organizations rely on for execution are also the reason most transformative efforts fail.

"First, most organizations treat strategy creation and execution as separate and sequential activities ...

"Second, when it comes to execution, most of the time and attention get focused on making structural changes and using carrot and stick approaches do little to inspire and build people's confidence, which is critical to creating transformative change. At its core, a successful blue ocean shift is fundamentally a humanistic process".

The "humanness" principle is far more than a "feel good" idea. It acknowledges the need for both clear direction and empathy, for practical tools and processes that enable competence and that create confidence building experiences. They argue for intentional processes within strategy and transformation efforts that directly engage those affected in providing input and insight. These include:

Atomization: breaking the challenge down into small, concrete steps that move people forward in increments that inspire and build their confidence;

Firsthand discovery: providing tools and processes that allow people to arrive at the answers themselves;

Fair process: engagement, explanation, and clear expectations.

They also explain the need for processes (including one-page visual "maps") that enable us to think outside the mindsets that naturally constrain us. Together these approaches integrate both the strategy creation and execution elements. It's not rocket science, of course, but it's also not easy. And organisational structure and culture can make it even harder.

The "humanness" principles go back to Kim and Mauborgne's opening insight about the paradox of being creative and wanting to make change while feeling vulnerable and striving to avoid reproach: "Behind our titles, all of us are incredibly vulnerable. We strive to avert reproach. We want to avoid making fools of ourselves. We steer clear of revealing what we do not know So our penchant is to cling to what is, instead of exploring what could be. This includes people at the top, whose egos are often the most fragile of all. Not addressing these basic human truths, or assuming them away, is why so many change efforts and attempts to drive organizations to become more creative and innovative fail."

Because resistance, fear and uncertainty are real and natural responses in the face of change and opportunity, no strategy will flourish without careful attention to humanness. On the other hand, hope, aspiration and creativity are also real and natural forces waiting to be harnessed.

If you'd like to learn more about Blue Ocean Shift just email your request for my free three-page summary and I'll be happy to share it with you.

And if you'd like to explore ways to increase the "humanness" of your team or organisation's approach to change and creativity, take a look at some of our leadership, team and communication workshops.  Or call or email me to discuss.

Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies



Kim, W. Chan & Mauborgne, R. (2017). Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond competing Proven steps to inspire confidence and seize new growth. Macmillan

Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping students find connection, compassion and character at school. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

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