Clumpers vs. Splitters – Two Poles in Strategic Thinking

David La Piana, Managing Partner, discusses the concept of clumping vs. splitting and the ways in which this dynamic can impact your thinking and conversations about strategy.

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?

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