To make a real decision you have to kill options

Nick IngramStrategy4 Comments

I learnt the other day that “decide” and “homicide” come from the same Latin root. “Caedere” is the Latin for “cut”. In “homicide” you cut a person (“homo”, literally a “man”). In “decide” you cut “off” (Latin, “de”). In other words a real decision will involve the cutting off, the killing off, of other options.

Strategy is about choice

Roger Martin is famous for saying strategy is all about choice: making a decision to do one thing and not another. It’s not too far to say that a good strategy will, by its nature, focus you on one set of options and close another set off.

So, when you’re in your next strategy workshop and you emerge without having killed off options for your organisation, you actually haven’t made any real decisions. And at that point, you haven’t really created a strategy at all.

Roger Martin’s classic example is a strategy “to be customer focused”. His retort: “is there an organisation that would choose not to be customer focused?” In other words, have you really made a choice if that’s your strategy? Realistically what options have you killed by making that statement?

That’s a helpful comment as far as it goes. However, I suspect there are some organisations and industries, relics from the old economy, for whom a strategy of customer focus is still meaningful. And will involve making choices that are real decisions – in the sense that they kill off other options. Monopoly industries, such as the taxi industry, now being disrupted, spring to mind. Imagine if the taxi industry had made a real choice to be customer focused five years ago? I wonder if Uber would be having such an easy ride of it now?

NFPs are often the most strategic organisations

I’m writing this after a day working with a great not-for-profit client. I reserve about one third of my practice to work with NFP clients. One of the reasons I do this is that they are often the most strategic organisations. You are dealing with a whole ‘system’ that you can get your hands around. But also, these organisations have to be truly strategic, because they are so resource constrained that they have to make real decisions.

My client, faced with the disruptions caused by radical changes in government funding models, has reimagined its whole identity over three one day workshops of Executive and Board. Today the Board, because of the clarity of their new strategic direction, was able to make a vital decision. They are exiting an entire market, one that they have been hanging on to for quite some time. They have killed, cut off, an option they were keeping open. That’s a real decision.

And that real decision frees them up. It frees up management time to spend on markets where they want to play, where they are strongly mission-aligned, and where they have a good advantage. Markets where they can “play to win”. It frees up precious resources. And it clarifies the message they are sending to their clients and other stakeholders, as to the true value they create.

In killing an option, they have freed themselves up to be more successful.

That’s a real decision. And that’s real strategy.

4 Comments on “To make a real decision you have to kill options”

  1. Avatar

    Nick – I think you might be too kind towards monopoly industries with a strategy of “customer focus”. I don’t disagree that it is required in some natural monopolies but I would of thought that it should be a first and initial strategy that should be “killed” by the next strategic decision.

    Really enjoying the blog


  2. Avatar

    New to this blog so this is the first post I’m reading.
    You make a good point that choosing to be customer focussed may be choosing no strategy at all. Too often having chosen a strategy, organisations don’t also choose what they will stop doing – the chosen strategy then has to compete with the “business as usual”. And BAU can be difficult to give up because it’s known, it’s comfortable and it keeps everyone employed.

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