The Problem with Strategy, Policy and Other Intangibles

I start this story by misusing a quote from a famous Time Lord, once idolised by my son (I may still idolise David Tennant, but that’s a different story entirely!):  

People tend to assume that strategy creates a logical progression of cause to effect, but *actually*, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, strategy is generally more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, complexplanning-for-a future-we-can’t-really-plan-for type stuff . …

New or revised strategy is often hailed as a breakthrough when first published but it can be rapidly subject to an inglorious fate:  it fades into insignificance, being dismissed as irrelevant or ‘aspirational’it is used as a stick to beat any other emerging idea or project that doesn’t quite fit the strategy ideals; or the ‘strategy label has been so over or misused that it ceases to hold any true meaning or have positive impact.  None of these fates should be the end point of good strategygood strategy should lead to true transformation and have a tangible, beneficial impact on operational or organisational effectiveness.   

Similarly, policy development is difficult and is viewed as an art rather than as a science in most government organisations. 

In Defence, this art is to answer the questions set by national security and domestic and foreign policy, and respond to threats from adversaries and the expectations of our key allies with the most efficient solution in terms of force structure, capability, operational approach and resources. (Learning at the same time that, although it is not possible to make everybody happy all of the time, it is possible to really annoy lots of people all at once).  This means that policy-makers in Defence (and in other highly regulated and resource-intensive organisations) have to develop the ability to predict the future; consider organisation-wide strategic balance-of-investment issues; understand the systemic impact of key decisions across the departmental, governmental and global context; join the strategic dots; learn to sell a story better than Rupert Murdoch and be able to write in full sentences.   

The fundamental problem with Policy and Strategy is that it has been almost impossible to quantify how good they are until it is too late.  

And, even after the fact, it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly where a policy or strategy failed, or why it was only partially successful – with outcomes and effects on the frontline often seeming disconnected from the policy cause due to the complexity of the dependencies and relationships flowing from the decision maker to the end user.   The strategic decision-support and analysis underpinning strategy and policy development usually deals with intangible, system-wide issues and is based on qualitative data and varying degrees of “management intuition”.  And although a focus on evidencebased decision making has led to much effort and time being spent on studies, research and analysis to support the development of policy and strategy, often the issues are so high-level and the document so far reaching that only a small portion of the evidence is generated, and it may only apply in certain specific circumstances.  This can be like trying to assess major geopolitical developments by looking at them through a drinking straw (paper one, obviously!). 

In this strategy-driven world, Cervus’ novel approach brings some order to the chaos from which strategy and policy is often born. 

We have developed a range of novel techniques, based on our capabilities in problem rationalisation, AI and aggregated analytics, that enable large organisations to quantify and assess their strategy and policy, to benchmark its performance and expose its dependencies, and to develop and try out policy prototypes before making hard decisions that are difficult to reverse.  We help to rationalise the non-linear, wibbly wobbly nature of policy and strategydevelop relevant metrics, and tangibly join the dots between frontline effectiveness and strategic decision-making. 

We think that this ‘assess and test’ before you invest in policy and strategy planning or wholesale change will truly transform the Strategy and Policy landscape, enabling lessons to be learnt, improved futures analysis, greater confidence in policy decisions, better understanding of the dependencies and levers which may affect policy or strategy outcomes and result in reduced organisational risk.  And ultimately, a better result for the frontline – saving lives and reducing complexity. So, Allons-y! as the Doctor might say 

by Amanda Coleman

Amanda has over 20 years’ experience in leading Strategic Experimentation and Advisory Programmes, both within government and as part of industry.

She started her journey as an engineering apprentice within the MoD, then shifted her attention to Force Development and Capability Studies at Dstl. She then was promoted to Assistant Head of Development and Research at the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). For over 5 years she led a multi-disciplined team which delivered research, analysis and experimentation to support the development of doctrine, concepts, policy and strategy.  She then spent the last 8 years working for QinetiQ, making the transition to wider government and international programmes and complex decision services. Amanda is now our Chief Scientific Officer, and is enabling Cervus to be at the forefront of innovative and transformative science for problem solving, prototyping, experimentation and data analytics for Defence, Security and other highly regulated and complex industries.