Guest blogger:
David MayleDavid Mayle, Lecturer in Management and a member of  The Open University’s Centre for Human Resource and Change Management.
In the search for some real dialogue, I’m going to offer something deliberately contentious. Towards the top of this article there is currently a grey box with ‘Reply’ in it. If anyone has had the temerity to post a comment (for that is what we’re looking for) the grey box will change to contain a number. Do click on it and let us hear your opinion. So please, disagree, agree, rebut, improve, argue, however the mood takes you. 

Have you noticed how the term ‘trade-off’ is considered to be a bit wimp-ish in our sadly macho world of modern management? Some of this stems from the sort of questioning attitude inherent in TQM (Total Quality Management) and its derivatives, wherein we were all (rightly) encouraged to regard trade-offs – ‘if we want A, then we can’t have B’ – as self-limiting beliefs, to be challenged and, hopefully, circumvented. Now this is all right and proper up to a point; trade-offs are indeed not inevitable, with a little imagination, we can often design our way around them. There are, however, two really important words in that sentence: ‘often’ (as opposed to ‘always’), and ‘design’ (as in the design school of strategy).

Let’s take ‘design’ first. Ever since Mintzberg’s attempted demolition of the design school model of strategy[1], design has had a bad press in strategic circles. I’ve never quite decided whether that was a wilful misrepresentation of the whole process of design on Mintzberg’s part, or whether it was just his unfortunate use of the term to describe the painfully deterministic traditional process he was attempting to critique. Either way, the treatment was unhelpful in the extreme. In her elegant rebuttal of Mintzberg’s argument[2], Jeanne Liedtka notes that any respectable design engineer would highlight the contingent, iterative, on-going problem-solving nature of the design process as something actually very similar to Mintzberg’s earlier musings on ‘crafting strategy’[3]. Anyway, the bottom line with regard to ‘design’ in this context is that it is an on-going process that consumes resources – time usually included – in pursuit of a solution. The potential need for trade-offs must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; it cannot simply be dismissed by management fiat.

So let us move on to ‘often’. Often means ‘not always’, or even just ‘sufficiently frequent that we should not automatically assume otherwise’. So let’s not assume, let’s check it out. But then, after careful consideration maybe we have to recognise that we can’t get round it this time, maybe we really have to choose between two products or two markets, maybe we really haven’t got – or can’t get hold of – the resources required to do justice to both. Trouble is, how do you acknowledge this in a culture where a ‘Can Do’ mentality is a requirement for continued employment?

Over many years and many organisations, this has always been my biggest strategic problem: how to manage my boss’s gut feel. How do I convince the management of the day that (a) Strategy is to do with decisions, as much about what we’re not going to do as what we are; (b) Priorities must be established, and we need to accept that stuff lower down the list will in all probability not happen, and (c) the Jean-Luc Picard School of Management[4] only works on television.

[1]    The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York; The Free Press, 1994).

[2]    ‘In Defense of Strategy as Design’ (2000) California Management Review, 42 (3)

[3]    ‘Crafting Strategy’ (1987) Harvard Business Review, 64 (4)

[4]    ‘Make it so, Number One!’ (1987), Star Trek:TNG

6 thoughts on “Trade-offs

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