Product strategy: coherent action

Strategy expert Richard Rumelt elaborates on the third element of his kernel of good strategy: the set of coherent actions taken to effect the plan. Quotes from Good Strategy, Bad Strategy:

Many people call the guiding policy “the strategy” and stop there. This is a mistake. Strategy is about action, about doing something. The kernel of a strategy must contain action. It does not need to point to all the actions that will be taken as events unfold, but there must be enough clarity about action to bring concepts down to earth.

In many situations, the main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided — that the whole long list of hoped-for “priorities” can all be achieved. It is the hard craft of strategy to decide which priority shall take precedence.

Nevertheless, strategy is primarily about deciding what is truly important and focusing resources and action on that objective. It is a hard discipline because focusing on one thing slights another.

The actions within the kernel of strategy should be coherent. That is, the resource deployments, policies, and maneuvers that are undertaken should be consistent and coordinated. The coordination of action provides the most basic source of leverage or advantage available in strategy.

The idea that coordination, by itself, can be a source of advantage is a very deep principle. It is often underappreciated because people tend to think of coordination in terms of continuing mutual adjustments among agents. Strategic coordination, or coherence, is not ad hoc mutual adjustment. It is coherence imposed on a system by policy and design. More specifically, design is the engineering of fit among parts, specifying how actions and resources will be combined.

Another powerful way to coordinate actions is by the specification of a proximate objective. By “proximate,” I mean a state of affairs close enough at hand to be feasible. If an objective is clear and feasible, it can help coordinate both problem solving and direct action.

Strategy is visible as coordinated action imposed on a system. When I say strategy is “imposed,” I mean just that. It is an exercise in centralized power, used to overcome the natural workings of a system. This coordination is unnatural in the sense that it would not occur without the hand of strategy.

Coordination is costly, because it fights against the gains to specialization, the most basic economies in organized activity. To specialize in something is, roughly speaking, to be left alone to do just that thing and not be bothered with other tasks, interruptions, and other agents’ agendas. As is clear to anyone who has belonged to a coordinating committee, coordination interrupts and de-specializes people. Thus, we should seek coordinated policies only when the gains are very large.

See also the hallmarks of bad strategy.


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