During her keynote at the Strategy Fest, Jessica Nordlander presented her new Strategy Framework. A visual quadrant to help divide strategies into planning and execution stages, as well as complex and complicated problems to solve with those strategies.
Jessica shares key examples to understand each scenario, and how sometimes, leaders don’t understand the differences between what it takes to solve a complicated problem, and a complex problem.
Jessica Nordlander is a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and was recently awarded the Most Innovative Leader in one of the most innovative countries in the world (her native Sweden). She has joined Thoughtexchange with a main focus on Strategy & Operations. Prior to this, Jessica led impressive change and growth in multinational companies, as Chief Digital Officer for global travel group STS Education; Head of Business Development at Google and Managing Director in Stockholm, Dubai and Vancouver for SaaS growth wonder Meltwater. Jessica serves on the board of several tech start-ups and contributes to Forbes.com as a member of the Forbes Technology Council (an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives).
Thanks so much, Sarah and Karim, and I'm pretty stoked to be presenting here at Strategy Fest if you're just joining us and missed the awesome Intro. My name is Jessica Norlander and I'm the CEO at Site Exchange. We make enterprise discussion software that helps companies speed up alignment around things like strategy and culture and also accelerating performance by making sure that everyone is on the same page about what matters.
And one of those things that you kind of need to be on the same page in a company is strategy. So prior to working, I Thought Exchange. I was, for example, out of business development for the Nordic countries at Google and chief digital officer at SJS Education, a global travel brand. In 2019, I was named Sweden's most innovative leader. And I think that that probably gives something away about my professional passions. I care deeply about things like management practices, leadership paradigms, and how we build and lead organizations in digital environments.
How companies work with strategy and also innovation is a core piece of that. And today I'll be introducing a model that has been living in my head for years. But it's probably one of the first times I put it down on paper here, at the Strategy Fest and I'm going to give you guys a glimpse through this model, what it looks like inside my brain. It's a confusing place at times. So brace yourself for a glimpse into what Strategy might look like in the brain of Jessica Norlander.
OK, so let's get started and let's start with how strategy breaks down in my brain because I guess strategy is one of the main reasons why you guys are all here. Or I guess I have no idea how many of you are here because this is a digital environment, so there could be literally no one here. But in that case, it's good for me to speak about this model anyway, because it's been living in my brain so long that I started to be weird, like, does it even really exist? You know, something is only in your head. Sometimes you do need to talk it out to make sure it's actually real.
So it's actually quite easy because, in my brain, strategy consists of only two pieces, the process of developing strategy. So like deciding what your strategy is going to be and the process of executing against that strategy. So you decide what it's going to be and then you try to execute. Pretty straightforward, right? If we look at how well understood those two pieces are, I'm going to refer to probably the most credible source of them all when you try to figure out how well understood or how interesting something is in the world.
A search on Strategy Development generates 3.5 billion search results on Google. Strategy execution,255 million, so a magnitude of 15 times more focus is spent on strategy development. I'm not sure if this is representative of how hard those problems are to solve, but more about this in a minute. I want to explain the other element of this mind model of mine first.
So that part of the model is about the types of problems that exist in the world. And I'm going to make this one pretty easy, too, because, in my brain, there are only two types of problems in the world. There are complicated problems and they're complex problems. And they're pretty significant in character, so let me break that one down for you, for you.
So a complicated problem is solvable. Doesn't mean it's easy, but they're solvable. If you put a group of subject matter experts in the room, you give them an infinite amount of time and they will eventually find a way of solving that problem.
Complex problems are a bit different. You know, they can't really be solved by experts and or barely by anyone, I would say. And the complexity of a complex problem can just be managed well or not so well over time. So there's no way of really solving a complex problem, you can just manage it well or less well.
So let me take an example just to make sure that we were clear with this kind of complex problems, could look like and also like how they are different from complicated problems. I live in a small mountain town in British Columbia, Canada. Yeah. Thought exchanges is a fully remote company so you could choose where you wanted to live. And I chose this mountain town because the skiing is absolutely incredible here. And if you can be remote-first, why not choose to live in a small, small ski town? So there's a beautiful, huge river that runs through this town, and to differentiate between a complex and a complicated problem, I'll ask you to imagine that the mayor and the town wants to develop a new strategy around infrastructure. And part of that infrastructure strategy is building a new bridge.
So this is both a complicated and a complex problem. It's complicated because, like, not everyone knows how to build a bridge, right? Like you need engineers. The bridge needs to be structurally sound and build out the right materials and all those types of things, right? But experts can solve this problem, might cost a huge amount of money if the bridge is supposed to be built in a place where there really shouldn't be a bridge. But engineers with enough money and enough time will figure out how to build the bridge.
On the more complex side, half the town doesn't want this bridge. They don't agree that this is important or that the bridge should be built in this particular place, that the suggestion is it will make the town a little more accessible, for example, as a tourist destination. And there are some people in this town who feel that there's too many tourists coming in already and the small-town feel might change and all those types of things, and might also be that half the town actually lives off of tourism. So if you don't build this bridge, those people might be worse off.
So this is a complex problem. Experts can't really solve this problem, you know, going to be able to put a group of experts and solve exactly what half of this town doesn't want this bridge to be built. You're just going to have to find a way of managing this problem over time and maybe make it up to those people and make sure that everyone can see the benefits of this bridge being built and all those sorts of things. And also, if you would go wider and collect a bunch of more information may be from the people that are against this bridge to understand them better, you might end up with better ways of dealing with the complexity of the build this bridge consists of.
It might just be enough for those people that feel that the bridge is a bad idea to really feel heard and really get to understand maybe how the engineers are planning to make the bridge less intrusive by soundproofing parts of the places where houses are situated nearby or, you know, get a better understanding of like how might you be compensated if your view gets disrupted or something like that, right? There will be some unique perspectives as you try to work through the complexity of these problems. And if the mayor managed the complexity of this problem really well, it might even decide whether or not this mayor gets re-elected.
So now you're holding four things in your brain. Strategy comes in development and execution. So deciding what strategy you're going to have and how you're going to execute it, and then problems in the world are complicated and complex. So the model in my brain and it was interesting to see what the model in your brain looks like right now if it looks something like this.
So this is a quadrant where you have a strategy, development and execution on one axis and you have the different types of problems that come with developing and executing strategy on the other axis. So this quadrant is a combination of where you were at in your strategy development slash execution process and the types of problems you will run into as you either develop or execute against it. By knowing what type of problem you're trying to solve and where you are at in the strategy process, it will allow you to activate the right tools in your toolkit and involve the right people.
So this is really why I'm so passionate about bringing, you know, knowing where you're at in your strategy process and making sure you have the right people around the table. Give you some examples from my experience in each of these four pieces of the quadrant so you can know what to look out for.
So complicated problems in Strategy Development could include something like, what the heck is the size of our total addressable market? Like someone should go and calculate that thing. Experts can solve or figure out the total size of your total addressable market or how much money will our startup need to reach total world domination? That's another complicated problem. Someone can go and figure that out and build a business plan and those types of things.
A complex problem in Strategy Development is, for example, our customers keep changing their preferences or does everyone in our company agree on what the right strategy is? That's an example of a complex problem in strategy development.
In strategy execution, a complicated problem could be, how to keep track of how we're doing against the OKRs or the goals and objectives that we have rolled out in the organization. is a data issue. It's hard, but it's solvable by experts.
A complex problem in Strategy Execution could be, the data is telling us that we're not reaching a strategic goal in a particular area of the business, why is that? Why is a typical example of something that is often a complex problem, especially in a somewhat complex world, but we use that word a lot, right? We throw around the word complex a lot. And I think that if we learn to differentiate between complicated problems in strategy and complex problems we'll be better off.
For example, if you think back to strategy execution, the why of why the strategy isn't working or why people are executing against it like it isn't really solved by experts. And an organization that I've seen that successfully execute against strategy manages to figure out the complexities of humans because often complex problems around strategy execution have to do with people, even understand the strategy. Do they agree with it? So often when you don't involve enough people during a strategy development process, you get this complex problem is broader strategy execution where people just feel like I don't agree that this is the right strategy, I'm kind of going to go off and find another thing to focus on or actively work against the strategy that has been developed.
And if you go back and think about how much effort that's spent, those three-point five billion hits on Google versus the two hundred and fifty-five million that are searched for strategy execution, you can see that it would be pretty worthwhile if we manage to solve the complex problems, the strategy execution since we spent so much time and effort trying to develop good ones.
So the key call to action that I want to take away with this way of thinking is that both strategy development and strategy execution have both complicated and complex problems. And the more complex a problem is, the less likely it is that it will be solved by having a group of experts hacking away at it.
So what you probably need to do is involve as many people as possible to tap into the collective intelligence, democratize the process, increase the understanding and ensure ownership of the execution.
The types of tools that we have available to us, it's also very much to focus on solving this problem that the most effort has been put into. Right. If you think about all the tools that have been developed to solve complicated problems, for example, as part of strategy, we have our Gantt charts for project management. We have financial analysis tools like all of those things that are geared towards solving a complicated problem, whereas I believe that it's in the complexity that the real messiness is. And that's also where, you know, where I would prefer that we really try to democratize that process and to solve the complex problems because really it needs involvement by everyone in the organization If you're going to try to manage the complexity, not a small group of experts that tries to solve a complex problem.
And is also the fact that there's really no kind of strategy book that can help you solve complex problems inside of your organization because they come down to your humans. So only you and your organization can manage this because they have to deal with complex things like understanding, buying, ownership and those types of things. And I believe as I said, that the best way to manage this complexity is to activate your whole organization into strategy, development and execution process where you're trying to solve complex problems, leave the complicated to the experts and activate your entire organization to solve complex problems.
At thought exchange, I developed a process last year that had the entire company participate in a process where we set our five strategic pillars and we continuously track, evaluate and update our strategy based on input from our entire company. You know some people that might seem ludicrous, like how do you involve your entire company in strategy development and strategy execution?
Well. We don't involve every single person in the company in the complicated problems, if we want a financial analysis, for example, we don't necessarily ask every single person in the company to go and do that financial analysis because we're trying to solve a complicated problem. Right.
But the complexity, for example, are we taking input from our frontline staff that hear from our customers and talk to customers every day 100 per cent, because that's really where we need to go. Why do we need to try to solve complex problems like our customer keeps changing preferences? Like what should we do here? Right, to sit in an ivory tower as leader and think that you have the answer to those questions like it's not a good idea.
But as I said, it's not that we activate every single person in the company to solve every complicated problem that we have when we develop and execute on strategy.
And exactly how we went through that process. I guess it might be a talk for next year's Strategy Fest. But I think, you know, choosing your toolkit, depending on the type of problem that you're trying to solve, is a really good start.
If you want to learn more about how we work with inclusive strategy, as I would like to call it, at Thought Exchange, you can also reach out to me on LinkedIn and we can continue the conversation afterwards. I think I'm one of the very few Jessica Nordlanders there.
So just a reminder of the model and my mind model that I would encourage you to try to use two types of pieces of the strategy process, development and execution, two types of problems, complex and complicated it will take you a long way in developing more inclusive approaches to working with strategy.
Thanks, everyone for joining today and back to you Sarah and Karim.