Monday, June 12, 2017

Coherence: Left or Right?

There's an old joke about consultants.

You're diving in a car with a consultant and you reach a stop sign. "Left or right?" you ask. "It depends," says the consultant.

It's a joke that reads like a New Yorker cartoon; it's not uproariously funny, but if you've known a few consultants, you get it. They're forever locked in analysis mode. A frustrated client might bemoan the lack of directness, and come to resent the non-committal analyst. On the other end, you're reluctant to give direct answers because, well, it does depend. On many things. The best we can often do is an educated guess. A thoughtful, tires-kicked guess. There are times when you've got a firmer sense of certainty (not Icarus-level, but a certain sense of certainty), but it's always qualified. "I don't think you should do X, because of Y and Z."

This value can be thought of as bringing coherence (clarity) to problems. Organizations hire out for clarity all the time, but almost never is that clarity sustained, or is the skill of reaching clarity transferred. What true value do we bring if we create a paradigm of reliance, and provide clarity for a snapshot moment in time.

I appreciated Leinwand and Mainardi's piece on the "coherent premium" not only because it provides a justification for, and pathway toward, organizations undergoing the process of "figuring out what they're really good at and then developing those capabilities," but because it advocates for coherence in a way that builds and necessitates clarity as an internal skill to be practiced across a firm. It's important that a startup, for example, not only ignore from the outset "the intense pressure for top-line growth" and to  "chase business in markets where they don't have the capabilities for sustain success," but maintain the tenants of the coherent premium as a day-to-day mindset when making operations decisions.

Aligning day-to-day decision making with strategic intent (through capabilities development) is a more sophisticated/updated version of the "mission creep" worry with NGOs. Often, in that world, decisions about programming to pursue (for example) becomes misaligned with the strategic intent as encapsulated in the mission/vision statement. This has a lot to do with the shifting winds of funding priorities, but also our human nature - our desire, no matter the sector, to pursue growth/impact. While it's not smart to double down on a lackluster mission/vision, it's equally troublesome to move outside of strategic intent - precisely because the right capabilities never get invested in, or become underinvested in, or are spread too thin.

But how do we drill down on what we're good at? On where we actually add value? This is a difficult thing to do sometimes, and involves organization introspection. Leinwand and Mainardi frame this is a "coherence test," but what do to if your strategic intent does need a facelift? If you need to pivot to new markets because old/current ones aren't where you'll achieve them most ROI in the future? How do trends and how does forecasting fit into coherence, given that what makes sense now might not make sense in the future?

What we're left with is a ongoing commitment to coherence - to a consistent and dogged evaluation of alignment, forever posing questions of coherence, always asking "left or right?"

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