When I meet someone who calls themselves a ‘strategist’ I often remark “then we are in the same business, I help them work out where they want to go and you help them work out how to get there”. Sadly, my attempt at bonhomie often fails and I often get a blank look and then a short time later I’m not talking to anyone at all.

As a futurist I am not impressed by strategy that fails to make an explicit link with the intended future that the strategy is meant to bring about. Strategy that fails to make such a link I call ‘cookbook strategy’.  Do this first, then this next and finally this and bingo, there is your future.

Now cookbooks are very useful and when you discover a favourite recipe then you just know that when you apply the correct ingredients in the correct sequence that the yummy future your desire will eventuate. And even if you haven’t cooked the dish concerned for a long time you know that you can always go back to those favourite cookbooks again, repeat all the steps and the desired future emerges again.  If only real life worked liked a cookbook.

In real life if you follow a strategy cookbook – whether it be diamond shaped or involve 5 forces – add all the recipe ingredients to get your favourite banana cake and while you were not looking the future adds some minced steak and a kilo of hot chillies and it also changes the oven to run 100 degrees hotter or colder than the dial says. And when you get to the future you get the shock of your life; “I didn’t order this!”

Imagine my delight when I went to a recent presentation by the writer of a leading strategy text book, Bob de Wit (Strategy Synthesis), and in his opening he described strategy as a “dialectic approach between two irresolvable paradoxes”.  Now that sounds like a strategy approach that is nothing like using a cookbook.

Bob de Wit sees strategy as managing rival tensions with there being a multitude of positions that offer distinct resolutions but never a perfect answer. One such tension is the strategic balance between shareholder value (profitability) and stakeholder value (responsibility). Whatever strategic response is chosen (maximise profit) has consequence upon the other dimension of the paradox (minimise responsibility). This is not a simple binary opposition but there are an unlimited range of synthetic options available – hence the dialectic. His book outlines ten such paradoxes that organisations face.

This did seem like an interesting approach to strategy and one that seemed to integrate with our ideas about ‘using the idea of the future’. I began to wonder how we could use the future to assist organisation’s manage their paradoxes?

The first obvious way is to use the future as the design space within which to prototype future synthetic resolutions of the paradox. Create a synthetic future model that maximises both dimensions of the paradox (responsibility and profit) and thus you have your desired future and hence your strategic direction.

I then saw parallels in our approach called Actionable Foresight. The phase we call Present Need is where the paradox(es) are identified and Pathways Thinking and Option Generation are where the multitude of synthetic positions are explored. And finally Goal Commitment is where we settle on the best resolution of the strategic tension. Not a solution but the best tradeoff we can build commitment to. And as we move towards the commitment future then we scan the state of the paradox, where is the pressure building and where is it lessening, always seeking for new and innovative combinations that provide a synthetic resolution of the tension.