Wicked Strategies: A book review by Bob Morris

Wicked StrategiesWicked Strategies: How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors
John C. Camillus
University of Toronto Press (July 2016)

How to embrace change and transformation, yet maintain an enduring and proud identity

To what does this book’s title refer? According to John Camillus, “some problems are so complex, so intractable, and so threatening organizations — or entire industries — that they are best described as ‘wicked.’ These problems resist easy interpretation or understanding; they pose questions which seem, to observers, to be unsolvable; and, they render traditional analytical tools of strategy virtually impotent, requiring new approaches to analysis…The hallmark of a wicked situation is a rapidly transforming business environment in which established models of profitability and success are undergoing unpredictable threats and sea changes.”

What to do? Formulate a strategy that will solve a “wicked problem” in the given situation and then execute it successfully. Camillus again: “Wicked Strategies prepare firms and managers to prevail over paradoxes and to create and profitably exploit disruptions. Wicked strategies are designed to enable firms to achieve two apparently conflicting, yet utterly necessary goals…ensure economic sustainability by positioning a firm to (1) aggressively seek to enhance the competitive advantage of their existing businesses, while at the same time (2) resolutely transform to make the existing businesses obsolete before the context or the competition does it to them.”

In this context, I am reminded of concept introduced by Vijay Govindarajan in his latest book, The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, published by Harvard Business Review. He provides what he characterizes as “a simple framework that recognizes all three competing challenges face that managers face when leading innovation.” That is, simultaneously managing today’s business while creating tomorrow’s and letting go of yesterday’s values and beliefs that could keep the company stuck in the past. “It’s a powerful guide for aligning organizations and teams on the critical but competing activities required to simultaneously create a new business while optimizing the current one.”

I agree with both Govindarajan and Camillus that business leaders today face more and far more threatening challenges that at any prior time that I can remember. To paraphrase the title of one of Marshall Goldsmith’s recent books, “What got you here won’t get you there. It won’t even allow you stay here. To survive at least for a while, you must do even better what you do now and, meanwhile, you must also come up with something new that dominates your next competitive marketplace before someone else does.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Camillus’ coverage:

o The Seeds of Wicked Problems (Pages 9-12)
o Crafting the Framework for Developing Wicked Strategies (12-15)
o From Disruptive Technologies to Innovative Business Models (20-35)
o Building Alliances (44-45)
o The Innovation Ecosystem for Co-Creating Value (46-48)
o From an Unknowable Future to Feed-Forward (52-58)
o Developing the Organizational Identity (75-82)
o Types of Uncertainty (85-89)
o Transformational Scenarios and Enablers (97-101)
o Enabling Transformation: Building the Feed-Forward Vision and Business Model (104-113)
o Characteristics of the Feed-Forward Process Alignment (112-113)
o Module to Stimulate and Support New Businesses (116-118)
o Module to Develop and Deploy New Competencies (119-121)
o Linking Identity and Feed-Forward (128-142)
o Forging Wicked Strategies (146-148)
o Walmart and the Three Mega-Forces (156-169)

Whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need Wicked Strategies, not only to survive but to thrive in a global marketplace that has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall. They must be custom-designed to nurture new business initiatives and facilitate transformation while continuing to support existing business initiatives. In the last chapter, Camillus addresses the process of implementing the feel-forward framework to achieve those two interdependent rather than mutually exclusive objectives. He provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel in this book to guide and inform the implementation process. More specifically, he explains

1. How to develop an identity that affirms and expresses your organization’s core values, assumptions, aspirations, and competences.

2. How to establish the fast-feed framework that leverages that identity to attract the talented people, profitable clients, and formidable allies you need.

3. How to design a modular structure that is dynamic, flexible, resilient, and durable, no matter how many wicked problems emerge.

“What your efforts are designed to create is a firm that embraces change and transformation, yet maintains an enduring and proud identity; that prizes its employees as the creators of celebrated societal benefit and superior economic value for its shareholders; and that unflinchingly faces and indeed exploits an unknowable future.”

As John Camillus well realizes, it is no coincidence that companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry category. With rare exception, these companies have created and then nourished a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development thrive. That is why they conquer complexity and confound their competitors.

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