I recently facilitated a global organization’s board discussion
around adoption of an aggressive, long-term vision. Senior management had
broken the new vision into five key elements, which some board members referred
to as strategies but others thought included some tactics. Regardless, the
overall direction seemed right to everyone, as did the contents of the
elements, but one board member objected to having five of them. “People can
only remember three things,” he said, reasonably enough. Another board member
agreed, and a third suggested the elements could logically be condensed from
five into three. Someone else thought only two elements would be needed.
This was not a board-gone-wild micro-editing exercise. No
one tried to rework the document, they kept it at the level of providing input
for management, which was the purpose of the discussion. And no one sought to
eliminate any of the vision’s elements. Rather, they suggested condensing and
aligning them for a clearer or crisper presentation.
I pointed out that the board was engaged in a tug of war inherent
to strategic thinking. I call this clumping vs. splitting. When we see
five, or eight, or ten of something (challenges, strategies, goals, tactics,
etc.), our instinct is to condense. On the other hand, when someone presents a
single killer strategy, our inclination is to break it into its component parts.
Thus, five becomes three while one becomes five.
I have witnessed this tendency in many clients and indeed, I
see it in myself. So, what’s behind the clumper vs. splitter dynamic? From my
extensive empirical research into the topic (!), I think it comes down to the
simple fact that no strategy process is ever perfect, that there is always
something more to be said (splitting), an urge to elaborate the concepts, and
when fully elaborated, there is always a need to simplify (clump), to condense,
edit, and sharpen the presentation.
Clumping: Many times, I help a client describe its
situation in detail and then, in looking at what they’ve articulated, I help
them to consolidate the diverse issues they raised into one coherent statement
of the problem or challenge the organization faces. “We are losing clients
to rivals, our staff turnover is too high, we just lost a major public contract,
and we are drawing down our reserves,” can be clumped into the headline: “Our
business model is failing.” Rolling up seemingly discrete problems enables the
bigger picture to emerge, grabbing everyone’s attention and highlighting the
criticality of the situation.
Splitting: Other times, a client presents a simple
dilemma, such as “We just need to raise more money to advance our mission,”
but the search for solutions benefits from breaking this down into its
constituent parts: “We need a better-connected board, a clearer statement of
our mission, hard longitudinal evidence of our impact, a more inspiring CEO, and
greater investment in the development function.” The resulting problem is
clear, but the organization needs to understand how it got there. Articulating
these troubling elements points the leadership toward solutions.
Beyond the specific requirements of the situation, some individuals
tend, in their hearts, to be either clumpers or splitters. It’s not all or
nothing, but more of a continuum, like introvert-extrovert on the MBTI. Some
people generally prefer simplicity for its ease of reference and communication,
while others prefer to articulate the details of any strategy. Most groupings
of individuals, whether a board or a staff team, seem to include both types,
which is a good thing.
So, are you a clumper or a splitter?