“How Dilemmas Management will help your strategic thinking”

by Didier Marlier on Saturday October 15th, 2011

In a recent discussion, a psychiatrist friend of mine elaborated around the notion of “choice” and I found it particularly relevant to our professional lives: “Many people at the executive levels display one form or another of perfectionism. They are therefore very hard on themselves and their people. Referring to the risk aversion theory (which I was checking with him), they seem to suffer far more from the sometimes negative or imperfect consequences of their decisions than enjoy the fruits of their great intuitions. It seems that they could be greatly helped by understanding the notion of choice! A choice implies a decision between two or more options. And choosing one automatically means consciously and willingly abandoning the others and live with the consequences of that verdict. In that sense, it is illusory to expect that a choice will be perfect and encompass all the desired outcomes we were contemplating and hoping for. French writer, André Gide, used to say: “The act of choosing is less about selecting than renouncing” and this is what we need to be at peace with. Our choices will always be accompanied with joy and grief!!!”

I felt deeply moved by that conversation as I could recognize myself in it as well as many remarkable senior people we work with.

Discussing it further with my partners, the theme of “Strategic Dilemmas” naturally emerged as the notion of choice applied to strategy.

In the “old days” of the “Simple & Complicated” worlds, we used very linear, sequential and efficient manners to solve problems: 1/ Define the problem 2/ Identify the root cause 3/ Choose the right solution 4/ Implement 5/ Ensure that the identified problem has been removed. This is still taught and enormously helpful when leading in and dealing with the simple and complicated contexts.

But when dealing with chaotic or complex circumstances, the method may suddenly appear simplistic and inadequate. Things may not be as clear-cut and simple as desired and “both…and” may be a better option than “either…or”… Short term focus or long term vision? Value Capture or Value Creation? Demonstrating strong leadership presence or build? Ownership and responsibility amongst employees? Holding a clear vision or feeling at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty? The answer is probably both… And there will be more emphasis on one at times and on the other later.

These are what we call strategic dilemmas. A dilemma is “a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable” suggests Wikipedia. For us a strategic dilemma is something workable and helpful:

  •  It forces leaders to move from “either…or” towards “both…and”
  • It is not about choosing which axis is better but being able to understand how to make both workable
  • It is recurrent: one doesn’t “solve” a dilemma. It keeps coming back and its answers and ingredients (a bit more of axis “x” this time, a bit more of “y” next) need to evolve in regard of the context
  • It addresses (not solves) two issues which seem to be conflicting
  • It is a very powerful way to re-engage people, previously de-energized by the either…or decision making style
  • It is appropriate in today’s world of complexity and adaptation

I was once told the story of an extremely delicate conversation between Henry Kissinger, when he was Secretary of State and his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts who had been invited in Washington for peace talks. Rapidly the discussion crystallized and froze around the issue of the Sinai Peninsula which had been conquered at high price by the Israelis during the two previous wars of the Six Days and the Kippur. On the one hand, the Egyptians absolutely needed to save face and regain control of the lost territory in order to be able to justify of their engagement in Peace talks to their population. For the Israelis, keeping hold of the Sinai was a matter of national safety, ensuring they would have time to react should the Egyptians attack them. By carefully conducting that tense dialogue, Kissinger is said to have helped both parties to understand why they were so vividly attached to the Sinai. Little by little a possible solution emerged (which wasn’t as good as “having it all their way” for both parties but was perfectly acceptable): The Egyptians would regain national sovereignty of the Peninsula but the whole region would be demilitarized and carefully scrutinized by third parties so that Israel’s safety was granted.

How many hours do we sometimes waste in our Board Meetings, victims of the “either…or” syndrome instead of thinking and dealing with the situation as a strategic dilemma?

Dealing with dilemmas is not the world of not choosing… As one “healthily cynical” partners of ours sometimes says about people using the dilemma concept to block discussions and excusing their lack of courage to choosing “If a leader lacks the courage, intelligence or determination to make a difficult decision, they may frame the alternatives as a dilemma. This purely intellectual process will give the impression to others that the leader is taking action, whilst conveniently masking his or her weakness. Dilemmas can be applied everywhere in business, though are particularly valuable in areas of incompetence. The main caveat is that they should only be deployed once with any audience, as repeated application will demonstrate the underlying flaws in the process and the lack of tangible results.” This is of course not what we mean by strategic dilemma management but the caveat is worth keeping in mind… Leading our organizations through strategic dilemmas is about making choices by identifying the various axis of reflection and choosing the course to navigate amongst them, day after day…

Vienna (!) and Paris on the menu this week. Have a good one! Didier

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