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Action-Oriented Strategic Management

Author(s): Colin Eden and Chris Huxham

Source: The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 39, No. 10 (Oct., 1988), pp.
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals on behalf of the Operational Research Society
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J. Opl Res. Soc. Vol. 39, No. 10, pp. 889-899, 1988 0160-5682/88 $3.00+0.00
Printed in Great Britain. All rights reserved Copyright (? 1988 Operational Research Society Ltd

Action-Oriented Strategic Management

'Strategic Decision Support Research Unit, Department of Management Science,
University of Strathclyde and 2Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde

This paper describes a methodology for strategic management whose primary aim is to gain involvement
and commitment from those whose actions will secure the organization's future, rather than to produce
perfect plans. The process involves a continuous cycle of workshops in which many managerial levels
participate, focussing on the creation and evaluation of strategic options, including analysis of the
competitive environment in which the options would be carried out. Through such workshops, a
knowledge base of the 'corporate context' is built up of the combined, and often opposing, views of those
who have participated, and this is fed back into future workshops. There is thus a flow of ideas and
experiences both up and down and across the organization. It is argued that as well as enhancing
commitment and understanding, the process also fosters creativity, reduces bounded vision and
encourages participants to think about themselves and the organization in new lights.
Key words: cognitive mapping, competitor analysis, corporate context, process of planning, strategic
management, strategic options, subjective images


In recent years there have been two major concerns of practitioners working on strategic plans:

first that the planning activity has had little impact on managerial action, and secondly, that it has
taken scant notice of the dynamics created by the strategic options open to competitors.
The first of these concerns is of importance to all analysts whose roles are concerned with

bringing about organizational changes. The rational approaches advocated by many of these
practitioners have frequently had less impact on organizational decision-making than their

proponents would wish. -3 This has been particularly true in their application to complex, 'messy'
The second has come to prominence partly as a consequence of the world trading situation, in

which companies have to compete more strenuously for smaller markets, and partly from a current

'vogue' for any new market-oriented approach to strategy (the popularity of texts such as that of
Porters is evidence to this interest).
In this paper we report on an approach to developing strategy that we have devised from a
programme of action research within three multinational companies. The approach addresses that

element of strategic management which emphasizes consensus-building and team processes. The

approach is explicitly set within an operational research framework by taking a model-building

view of strategy formulation, but this is used as an analytical device to guide both strategy selection

and process management. It may be described as a formalization of 'logical incrementalism'6 and,

in particular, of the process of what Quinn calls 'amplifying understanding', 'building awareness',

'changing symbols', 'building credibility' and 'legitimizing new viewpoints'. The approach reflects
Quinn's view of strategic change by paying attention to the following well-researched practical
problems which hinder the process of turning the development of strategy into action:

-The difficulties inherent in group decision-making in organizations. In particular, the possibility

of 'groupthink'7 and 'bounded vision',8 where the group filters out evidence that does not
comply with its view of the situation, is of concern.
-Reinforcing of bounded vision by company information and control systems. These systems are
often designed such that information received always reinforces the prevailing company view.
There is a danger that radical courses of action are punished because reward structures, such
as transfer-cost mechanisms, incentive schemes and costing systems, reinforce the organiza-

tion's conventions.9'0o
-The difficulty of achieving an element of 'experiential redesign'. This involves organiza
members 'redesigning' the way they think about their own role and the role of others in the

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Journal of the Operational Research Society Vol. 39, No. 10

organization, and can be a key element in whether or not strategic action has long-lasting

Planning as a boring and ritualistic 'rain dance'. Many managers view planning as a compulsory
chore which should be got out of the way as quickly and as easily as possible. The approach

in this paper is towards creating an atmosphere of adventure and creativity,12 so that managers
look forward to the planning activity.
Later in this paper we shall reconsider these issues in the light of the approach we introduce,
and try to establish the extent to which we have designed a method which takes these problems


The approach we shall describe is derived from experience in assisting with problem-solving in

teams.'31 4 It is based upon a complex philosophy about the nature of effective strategic thinking,
which is underpinned by two major points: first, that the process of planning is as important to
successful action as the issues themselves; and secondly, that the subjective views of organizational
members are vitally important contributions to the planning process.

Strategy and the process of strategic management

In the same way as much of OR is founded on a research paradigm rather than on a
consultant-client paradigm, the majority of approaches to strategic management embark upon a

study and analysis of the organization (a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis,

for example) and of such things as the economy and market-place.l5"l These approaches appear
to be characterized by the belief that planning is a professional activity in the sense that any person

experienced in the particular approach should be able to analyse the situation in the same manner

and arrive at the same conclusions.18 These approaches are designed to focus attention on a
particular set of questions which can be answered by a proper investigation into 'what is going
on in the organization and environment' as if the behaviour of the market-place and competition
were bureaucratic and rational. The involvement of those who have the power to carry out plans

is often restricted to stating the objectives of the organization (a task which is often regarded as

unproblematic!). The methodologies focus on outcomes-define objectives, identify strengths and

weaknesses, identify opportunities and threats, and select strategy.16 They do not focus on
process how to get a management team to agree, to internalize these outcomes and generate

commitment. There are exceptions; Checkland,19 Ozbekhan,20 Mason and Mitroff21 and
Mintzberg,22 for example, pay some attention to process issues.
In our approach we see the process issues and the issues deriving from 'facts' about the
organization and its environment as crucially intertwined, the outcome of the planning process
being ineffectual unless attention is paid to both aspects.
Images of the corporate world

Corporate-planning practice has generally taken study and research as its predominant method.
Little attention is paid to images that senior members of the organization have of the 'world of

action' within which they see themselves performing. Yet the wisdom and experience that these
officers of the company bring to their everyday decision-making is patently of importance to the
unfolding future of the organization; strategy will develop from these imprecise and qualitative
images. These may be the result of 'bounded vision', and therefore argued to be inaccurate by the

planner, but (to paraphrase Thomas and Thomas23) 'the way those with the power to act define
the corporate context is real in its consequences'.
We may surmise that this kind of data is rarely accounted for because it is difficult to acquire
and even more difficult to interpret and use. However, we argue that this data is so crucially
significant to an action approach to planning that we must work with some, inevitably qualitative
and tentative, version of the corporate context as it is seen by people managing the organization.
Thus we have been forced to design a methodology that can manage large amounts of qualitative
data expressed with uncertainty but definitely with personal selectivity and wisdom.

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C. Eden and C. Huxham-Action-Oriented Strategic Management

The methodology rests in part, therefore, upon the conception that the basis of thinking in
organizations is language and argument;24 more particularly, that the basis of discussion about the

future is predominantly through sentences which express beliefs about how the world is and how
it might be different. As we listen to senior managers talk about the future, they express a present

contrasted with a vision of the future, a present contrasted with what has been before, or a future
contrasted with what has been before. Reasons are surmised about how things come to be as they
are and how they may be changed.
This emphasis on language and thinking as the basis for understanding how people construe their

world is based in an 'action' rather than a 'systems' view of organizational life.25 Although
Checkland26 and other systems thinkers argue that the view of systems thinking implied by this

dichotomy is outdated, it nevertheless accurately reflects the difference in perspective between what

is known as 'soft systems' approaches and that described here.27'28 It stems from a perspective closer
to the literature on the 'sociology of defining situations'29 than on bureaucratic or rational views
of behaviour in organizations: the phenomenon of managers acting every day within a core belief

system-a way of construing the events around them-that consciously or subconsciously has
embedded within it an assumptive world that has strategic implications. Thus the implication for the

management of the development of strategy is that it must be focussed on:

(i) an understanding, through a model, of the embedded definition of the world that
participants use to inform their managerial actions;
(ii) 'building an awareness' of the intersubjective and cross-subjective elements of these

definitions, as they imply a strategic direction to managerial action;

(iii) using this model of cognition as the device to negotiate 'changing symbols' and 'legitimize
new viewpoints', so that

(iv) a new way of construing the world is formed in the minds of the managers who will act to
create a new strategic future.

To put this view of strategy development more colloquially, developing strategy is about seeeing
the future as something to be controlled and managed rather than forecast or planned; it is to see
the future as fleeting opportunities to seize upon and exploit. A strategy is about knowing how

to 'make sense of' events in one way rather than another, how to notice some events rather than
others, how to seize upon one opportunity rather than others, and how to do so faster than one's


The approach we shall describe in the following section therefore rests on the ability to hold on

to discussion that occurs during workshop sessions and faithfully reproduce it, blended with the
argumentation from other workshops. Essentially, this means that it is necessary to be able to
document and analyse reasoning-often tenuous reasoning based on intuition and experience.
Furthermore, we need to be able to record the often contradictory views of many people, and we
need to do this without losing the richness of the argumentation.

The tool used for this is a particular form of cognitive mapping (see Eden et al.13'24 for a full
explanation of the background to, and roles for cognitive mapping). As its name suggests, it is a
tool for mapping cognition (thinking and talking), developed from the Psychology of Personal
Constructs,30 rather than being simply a network of argument.31 A cognitive map shows the
interconnection between descriptions of the future, present and past, which are noted as
psychological contrasts; it shows a subjective and tentative system of assertions about means and
ends (i.e. about options and outcomes).
Figure 1 illustrates how discussion may be turned into the form of a map. The confidential nature

of the planning activity has precluded the use of 'real' data in this paper, and Figure 1 is therefore
based on an article in Computing magazine. Although clearly not generated under the conditions
to be described in the next sections, the map is typical of these, being a collection of, sometimes
contradictory, opinions from a variety of individuals about strategic issues. (Readers wanting to
attain a greater understanding of the process through which this map was drawn might like to
compare it with the original article.)

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Journal of the Operational Research Society Vol. 39, No. 10

Non-MS DOS m/cs

only used in









Gradual ....
speedy used
introduction of new IBM has tighter

9 products hold on rnkt...

2 Data General non-IBM get a look 28

PC as terminal...., increase PC efforts in IBM uses heavy PC
PC as stand alone .... DG believe PC advertising











PC suppliers rapid 12 p\ IBM has created a

... long-terrn 17 UK PC sales de facto standard...
production of UK business forecasts unchanged 14

integration products suppliers make....Z_ .... UK sales Buyers b

..Airdo not make forecasts cut back concerned about the

strategy changes as US "> 13 future \

4 Sales of bus. PCs 16

Sperry is in early in UK are high.... Shake-up of

days of PC 18 suppliers in US....

5 use in networks.... Slump in US PC suppliers

Dec press for sales US PC mkt.... are stable
of integrated 8
systems .... Dec Speed of change of
sell PCs alone




US problems are

internal .... US problems

related to UK


PC suppliers have Equipment must be

PC vague
suppliers have adaptable
to change
detailed strategies in tech....

for integration

/ \ 32 Worldwide slowdown

32imetmsthv 24 in PC rnkt....
/ \ Equiprent rust have Customers decide slowdown in US PC
own needs for major mkt only
attraction .... bus. probs....
`-.. customers take

10 ~ what's offered
Introducing PCs
into the



Buyer remorse...


customers know


PC supps integrate with their PCs



systems...PCs 23 s 2 Customers have more

sold for own sake 30 Creating a computer experience....
Cost/ benefit - aware culture.... customers have no

cost/+ other people ignorant of experience

benefits justifies PC benefits


FIG. 1. Example to illustrate an extract from the corporate context (data taken from 'UK business suppliers
face a rethink'. Computing, 18 July 1985, p. 16). Concept numbers are arbitrary labels, though it is possible
to make use of these by choosing a particular range of numbers to represent the part of the map generated
from a particular workshop session or corporate document. Arrows can be read (loosely) as 'leads to' and
dots as 'rather than', so, for example, concepts 17 and 18 in the centre of the map can be interpreted as
someone having put forward the view that 'a slump in the US PC market may lead to UK business suppliers
making strategy changes rather than not making strategy changes'. There is, however, a counter -argument
to this, expressed by concepts 19, 15, 12 and 17, which suggests that the 'slow-down is in the US market
only, so that UK PC sales forecasts remain unchanged, and UK suppliers will not make strategy changes'.
A minus sign on the arrowhead indicates that the first part of one concept leads to the second part of the
other, and vice versa; taking concepts 19 and 15, 'a worldwide slow -down in the PC market means that US
problems are related to the UK, whereas a slow -down in the US PC market only means that US problems
are internal'. A link with no arrowhead, such as that between 19 and 18, simply implies a link with no
causality; in this case it has been used since both halves of 19 could lead to 18.

The maps used in the strategic management process (as distinct from problem-solving events)
are very large (several thousand interconnected statements), and arise from aggregating the wisdom
of many members of the organization. For this reason specially designed computer software is
utilized to record, search, slice and analyse the data.32 Thus, for example, using a computer it is
possible to:

-search for concepts containing key words and then extract from the map only these particular
statements and the interconnections between them;
-find clusters of the model that exist without connection with the rest of the model; find groups
of interconnected concepts that form relatively dense clusters;

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C. Eden and C. Huxham Action-Oriented Strategic Management

find all final outcomes (statements with no consequences);

-search for those statements which are central to many lines of argument;
-find those statements with the most supporting argumentation;

-conduct logic tests on different parts of the data; for example: 'Which statements relate to a
particular strategic option and have implications for one division of the company but not for
another and yet have no financial implications?'
The software is flexible and allows the user to combine analyses in almost any way.


Conceptualizing the approach

Perhaps the clearest way of describing the approach is as a continuous and infinite series of
discussion workshops in which two to six participants are able both to glimpse the views of other
organizational members (not present) and to contribute to an ever increasing knowledge-base about

the corporate context, which directly implies strategic action. In doing so they become engaged in
committing themselves to a new view of their role and to the managerial action relating to a
developing strategy. An underlying principle of the method is that it should be contingency-oriented, rather than a precise recipe for strategic thinking, and thus be able to cope with the
uncertainty and complexity of organizational life. Workshops therefore vary depending on who
is currently participating; groups from a variety of managerial levels and a variety of specialisms

take part. In theory these groups are carefully designed to ensure cross-fertilization of ideas or
viewpoints, but in practice this may be modified by who is available.

In this work, the knowledge-base used is the computer-stored cognitive map containing

arguments developed at all previous workshops. Each workshop is centred on developing ideas or

exploring views of the environment in an area of particular interest to those present. To start the
ball rolling, and sometimes to set an agenda for discussion, the group is presented with an

appropriate 'slice' of the current knowledge-base. This allows them to see what organizational
members have said about the issues. In turn, their discussion will be added to the map so that their
views can also filter through to others.

In this way a model of the corporate context is built up as a body of argument about the nature
of the world within which the organization operates. It reflects organizational members' personal

views of the future as a 'conscious dream',33 a dream which influences their everyday activities in
their specific role. It is the sum of the vision of real people about their real job, and reflects 'hunch',
intuition and personal wisdom-indeed we call this collected knowledge 'synthetic wisdom'.34
Consequently it is bounded and blinkered by personal experience and a particular organizational
role except that it is also unbounded and unblinkered by the aggregation of the knowledge of
several people with different experience and different roles. And since people with a variety of roles
are involved in producing the knowledge-base and in extracting from it, the views of each are able
to influence and impinge upon the views of others. Thus, although any individual will never see
the knowledge-base in its entire detail (it is far too big to be comprehended, except using an
overview), the detailed knowledge of those at the lower levels of the organization filters upwards
as it is appropriate, and the more global vision of those at the higher level filters downwards to
those involved in 'doing'.
In order that this process generates commitment, it is important that the people involved
believe in, and to some extent feel ownership of the process. There is a subtle distinction to be
made here between ownership of the content of the model and ownership of the process of
its production. In work on problem-solving we have argued that it is vitally important that any
maps produced and any workshop discussions reflect the issues which are engaging the client

team in a way that is meaningful to the individuals involved.13 Although still relevant, this is
less important in planning, first because planning problems are in a sense 'owned' by corporations
rather than individuals, so there is not the same degree of urgency about them, and secondly,
because the map represents the aggregated views of people, many of whom have never met,
and each addition to it must be generally intelligible rather than meaningful only to those who
created it.

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Journal of the Operational Research Society Vol. 39, No. 10

What does seem to be important, however, is that people believe that their views are filtering
through to other parts of the organization, and that the process will have an effect on company
behaviour. Those at the lower levels need to be assured that more senior people will internalize

their local knowledge and that actions they take, as managers at the 'coalface', are consistent with
company policies. Those who decide on policies need to see them being internalized by those who
effectively carry them out. This means that people must be involved in the process on a regular
basis, and that they must see other people being involved also.
To this end, a number of the workshops are designed as feedback sessions, where people are

shown the maps that represent their own discussion and links to other parts of the model. Attention
is then usually focussed on possible areas for action. It is often helpful to keep the process moving

by running workshops with, say, three people who were together at a previous session and three
new people, starting with the feedback material. This means that some people will necessarily miss

out on the feedback workshop; for these people, a less satisfactory form of feedback is provided
in written form, often simply as maps.

However effective this is as a method of creating a model of corporate context, it is, in itself,
not a recipe for action. We have identified two further important dimensions of an action-oriented
planning approach: identifying portfolios of strategic options and possibilities for managerial

action; and subjecting such possibilities to a form of competitive analysis. Thus, as well as
concentrating upon particular interest areas, workshops usually also have an objective of either
working on and creatively devising managerial action (strategic options workshops) or working on
the possible competitive dynamics of managerial action that in other respects seems sensible
(competitor analysis workshops). We shall describe these different orientations below.
Strategic options workshops

In a strategic options workshop (SOW), the selected group of managers is given a designed
opportunity to explore a part of the corporate context that relates to their own activities in the
organization, with the aim of locating a set of strategic options which they can 'own' and

subsequently act upon. In this sense, a strategic option is taken to be a portfolio of actions that,
if taken together, will significantly influence the strategic future of the organization.
The workshop is thus based on a 'slice' of the current model of corporate context related to their

areas of responsibility. The slice is produced by identifying key concepts (usually using a key-word
search) and then adding in linked concepts (i.e. explanations and consequences) until a subset of
the map of about 150-200 concepts is produced. Thus concepts that have a bearing on the issues
concerned are drawn into the slice, as well as those that directly relate to the people present. With
interactive computer output available at the workshop, it is possible to explore lines of argument

further as the discussion dictates a need.

The slice is analysed and divided into five or six parts, dependent on the way the concepts cluster
together. Each of the clusters represents a strategic issue of relevance to the group.

Maps produced from other peoples' discussion may seem alien to a group at first sight, so a
format that is more readily acceptable to a meeting of managers is often used. Using the computer
software, we are able to convert each 'strategic issue' map into an issue statement. An example
of such a statement, based on the map of the article from Computing, is given in Figure 2. The
format is designed to be succinct and action-oriented, revealing:
(i) the general nature of the issue (a title or label) which is suggested by the outcomes from this
particular map (these outcomes may lead into other issues);
(ii) the reasons why it is an issue, as implied by the map;
(iii) the possible actions that are suggested within the map;
(iv) the ramifications of these actions (outcomes that were not identified as issue labels); and
(v) linked issues (other strategic issues in the slice which the map shows to be directly linked).
The issue statements form the agenda for the workshop. These are usually enlarged so that they
can be displayed and easily read by all participants. Hidden beneath each issue statement we
place an enlargement of the map upon which the issue statement was based. Experience suggests
that as discussion gets going, the participants need a facility for understanding the structure of
the argumentation that supports the issue; at this point we reveal the map that is underneath the

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C. Eden and C. Huxham-Action-Oriented Strategic Management

ISSUE Concept of terminal disappears. PC acts as terminal rather than just acting as
stand-alone machine.

REASONS PC suppliers' rapid production of integration products and detailed strategies for
integration. The speed of change of the PC market. Slump in US PC market,
which means UK business suppliers are making strategy changes. UK PC sales
forecasts are likely to be cut back following US slump.

ACTIONS Make equipment adaptable to change in technology and capable of long-term

attraction. Integrate PCs into larger systems. Educate bLayers of PCs so that they
know what to do with their PCs rather than have remorse about purchase.
RAMIFICATIONS Data General believe PC-sales will drop in UK.
LINKED ISSUES Non-MS DOS machines only used in specialized markets as a result of IBM

having a tighter hold on the market.

FIG. 2. An example of an 'issue threat' based on the 'cluster' given by Figure I (source: 'UK business supp
face a rethink'. Computing, 18 July 1985, p. 16).

statement. By gently introducing maps in this way, participants find that they are not 'f
rather are immediately helpful, and in practice they find it helpful to refer to the maps,
the issue sheets, to guide their thinking.


ICL gets into US &

IBM mkts.... ICL
remains in


Euro mkts

OPD does .... does

not sell in the US


CL unleash OPD in 36
other mkts in 1985... Orders for OPD from
IBM 34,36,38 mini



/ / \ / / Non-ICL voice




Mdl Earostp &fri IBM terminal not sold well


Europe.... emulator .... OPIDinteU

just sold as OPID

OPD has credibility

with potential

//|. ICL PCs A PCI oem agre ments

37 customers .... OPD

ICL and PCI oem is unknown entity

Reduced sales of agreement .... ICL

DRS.... same sales go it alone on OPD /





of DRS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~PCI has good

38 ~~~~~~~~CL & Sinclair no~t reputation in the

CL adp ~ 1 .... ICL & Sinclair us....

to emulate IBM OPD captures a w known in

terminals public imagination.... US 42




own right only 52 AT & T & Apple....






IBM PCs used a liability ICL/Sinclair

as terminals for CL .... * collaboration on

for IBM OPD design .... ICL






to ICL m/fs

43 39 ~~~~~~~~~~53

ICL do.... don't Fresh impetus forhinclaiur....u

CL in
in ICLs4 IBM
for Sinclair
.rm sour\
m/f users '- Surround' policy .... Sinclair remains

with conversion policy remains a superstar

kit for IBM PCs dormant

47 ", /46

Non-ICL .... no-one ICL not big enough

else provide to avoid giving

converters to link customers choice of







FIG. 3. Example to illustrate a competitor objectives hierarchy (data taken from 'ICL one per desk leads
fight for US and IBM markets'. Computing, 18 July 1985, p. 19).


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Journal of the Operational Research Society Vol. 39, No. 10

As the workshop unfolds, and action portfolios are considered, we elaborate the maps to follow
the debate by writing directly onto the enlarged maps. In this way participants see their arguments
recorded in the context of the issue they were debating, and so develop an ownership of the map
and an active understanding of the issue itself. By facilitating strategic debate in this way, the

participants are party to an effective, but gentle, 'negotiation' towards a consensual view of the
corporate context and the managerial actions that are implied by such a context. The argumenta-

tion presented by the participants of previous workshops is evaluated within the particular strategic
issues that are the responsibility of the managers at this workshop.
Competitor analysis workshops

The second type of workshop that is used to develop an action-oriented strategy is that which
forces members of the organization to explore the implications of strategic options for competitor

responses, by exploring the dynamics of competitor interaction in the market-place and attempting
to identify managerial action which will encourage a supportive rather than destructive response

from the organization's competitors. The overall aim of the workshop is to check whether strategic
options will enable the organization to manage and control the market-place rather than allowing
competitors to do so.

To set up a competitor analysis workshop (CAW), a 'slice' of the corporate context relating to
an area of concern to the group is taken, as for a SOW. However, for a CAW, this is then further
sliced so that concepts relating to competitors are hived off separately. For each competitor
(including the organization itself), the relevant map is laid out in the format of a triangle

representing a hierarchical network of means, ends, goals and objectives.24 The statement at the
top of the hierarchy represents our best knowledge of the corporate objective of the competitor

as it relates to the issue, and those at the bottom represent alternative options for achieving
the objective. Once again using data from an article in Computing, Figure 3 shows a typical
example of this layout for a competitor, ICL, with respect to the strategic issue 'growth in OPD

The workshop can be conceptualized as a game in which the actions of the competitors identified

in the slice (and any others deemed to be important) are played out. In principle, this can be
envisaged as in Figure 4. We picture a table around which sit the players who represent the

Payer 5

P~~ayer 4 P~~~ayeray2

ayer ayerPlaer

FIG. 4. A symbolic representation of competitor role play.


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C. Eden and C. Huxham-Action-Oriented Strategic Management

competitors. In front of each player is the goal hierarchy for the competitor, which is intended to
guide the action of the player in the game. The game starts by one player-usually the organization

itself-taking a strategic action. The next step is for the other players to decide which of them,
if any, would notice what has happened in the market-place. If a player believes that he, in his
role, would notice the events, then he uses the goal hierarchy to help him decide when he would

make a play and what the play would be. In this way the game is allowed to unfold until stability
or complete uncertainty suggest stopping.

In practice, we have enacted competitor gaming of this nature in two ways.35 In its simplest form,
the game is set up in one room, with the goal hierarchies (enlarged) on the walls, and participants

are asked to think out the responses of all competitors jointly, thus sharing their understanding
of competitor actions.


In this paper we have described a process of strategic management which deliberately does not

result in a 'plan'. And yet at the beginning of the paper we related our work to those who were
interested in the business of strategic planning. Where is the end-point of our planning process?

Why have we not mentioned planning documents, implementation strategies and the writing of

At the beginning of this paper we set out some practical problems which often act as blocks to

effective strategic action, and which we intended to address in our work. These were: gaining
commitment, creating competitor awareness, bounded vision, self-fulfilling control systems,
experiential redesign and the boring and ritualistic nature of planning. It is because we have been
striving to attain these ends that we have not taken the business of producing reports/plans as the

central activity. Put most simply, we have seen the planning process as the imposition of a
methodology or structure upon a human activity which should address itself to the wisdom of

managers at the 'coal-face' and at the top. The approach is a design for changing 'hearts and minds'.
It is an approach for changing the way managers go about their business: how they think about
what they see around them, and how they act with respect to what they see; and this involves both

broadening and narrowing what it is that they see.

Do we succeed in addressing the problems we raised at the outset? As with all action research

that has taken place over several years and a relatively small number of organizations, it is not

possible to prove success or conduct neat experiments.36 One can only thread together the
multiplicity of commentary, insights and experience of both organizational members and ourselves.
Nevertheless, our conclusions are based upon observations volunteered by the senior participants

in the three organizations in which the 'experiments' were undertaken. The participants were largely

directors of the company, and were mostly people with experience of more formal methods of
developing strategy against which they could make comparisons. We shall review our approach
in the context of the issues raised at the beginning.

Level of commitment

Clients consistently believe they see a level of involvement in the planning process, and thus
commitment to act, which is much higher than has been the case when traditional methods were

Competitor awareness

In addition to achieving its primary purpose of identifying stable options, competitor gaming

of the sort we have described has been used to change attitudes powerfully in non-market-led
companies. Senior managers describe these events as enjoyable and creative; forcing them to

consider competitor dynamics has had the effect of changing their conceptions of the market-place
and making them generally more aware of their competitors in their thinking.

Our experience suggests that managers involved in these workshops reveal more about their
competitors than they believe they know, and more than can be revealed by asking them direct
questions. The increase in corporate wisdom that occurs from the structured sharing of individual
knowledge is often regarded as surprisingly large.

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Journal of the Operational Research Society Vol. 39, No. 10

'Groupthink' and 'bounded vision'

A cursory appraisal of our approach might suggest that an increase in these is likely; we appear
to constrain our source of data to that which is preferred by those who work for the organization
and must therefore encourage the continued existence of organizational myths.9 However, what has
actually happened is that as a consequence of giving participants 'air time' to express views that
are beyond the standard scripts of the organization and to see views expressed by others in a

different context at a different time, a wide variety of different perspectives has come to the surface,
ensuring that 'groupthink' and 'bounded vision' could not occur. Several participants believe that

the approach has made the company 'wider open' to new ideas and different ways of looking at
the market and the strength of the company.
Conservative control systems

We were interested here in whether, after consideration of strategy, the organization would
continue to use control systems which reinforce its view of the environment. In retrospect, we do
believe we have experienced a greater willingness to evaluate the assumptions that underlie the way
in which the organization currently manages and controls its activities. For example, in one

organization, a fuller appreciation of the role of the appraisal system in career planning resulted
in fundamental changes in salary structures, promotion methods and recruitment strategies which

matched the new strategic thrust of the organization. Changes such as this occur because the
database is large enough to ensure that a particular view of the corporate context will generally

have to be seen in the context of alternative and sometimes opposing views.

Experiential redesign

Do managers involved in the process come to see themselves, their colleagues and their role

differently? Do they behave and think differently? We do not really know, and we do not know
how to find out, for we can never know what they would have done otherwise. Nevertheless, we
have seen managers shift in their view of one another and their belief about what is best for the

organization and their own departments. This happens during the workshops. New realities are

conceived and internalized, and because they are internalized, they become obvious and thus do
not feel like compromise.
Ritualistic 'corporate rain dance'

Finally, is the approach we have developed more fun, more creative and less of a 'corporate rain

dance'? Probably not to the degree to which we aim. Nevertheless, it is significant that in many
instances, far from moaning about the time-wasting nature of planning, directors of the
organization are actually demanding that more time be invested in strategy workshops.
Inevitably these assertions are weak in their surety. Unfortunately it is never possible to

conduct controlled experiments in order to develop a more precise understanding of the outcome

of the application of complex methods. Developing strategy in the manner we have described
is deliberately undertaken through a lengthy series of workshops that are contingently
designed to reflect the particular characteristics of the company and the participants. Action
research as a paradigm for understanding organizational problems must be seen as a cyclic process,
with experience of applying the method informing the theory and concepts that drive the method,
and these, in turn, informing the method. Thus both conceptual framework and method

are continually being redesigned as research progresses. Consequently, the method we have
described is not the same, either practically or conceptually, as it was when we started work in
this field.

Given this continually developing framework, traditional concepts of evaluation, such as

repeatability, clearly cannot hold. We suggest, therefore, that the basis for evaluation must lie in:
(i) the extent to which the conceptual framework is refuted by field experience;
(ii) the extent to which key objectives can be clearly recognized and realized by participants
through the language they use to describe the outcome of workshops (rather than through
directing response by questions); and
(iii) the extent to which the body of argument supporting the approach makes sense.

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C. Eden and C. Huxham-Action-Oriented Strategic Management

This paper has attempted to provide an honest, rather than overambitious, report that can leave
the reader with a realistic view of the state of the art.

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