The problem with strategic models, and why I don’t use them

You wouldn’t build a house without a hammer.

You wouldn’t paint a fence without a brush.

And, in much the same manner, many people wouldn’t develop a strategy without a model.

Strategic models are generally seen as the “tools” required to do strategy, and as such are the mainstay of management consultancies, corporate away days, brand books, and anywhere else that strategy plays a role.

Without question such models do provide some value – even if it’s only to make people feel like they’re doing something – and I’m sure they have yielded many effective strategies in the past.

However on the whole I think they do more harm than good.

The main problem with strategic models is that none of them are useful in all situations. For every single one its creators will easily be able to point to a case study where it worked flawlessly; and so from this we are meant to extrapolate the model’s effectiveness in all scenarios.

But of course it doesn’t work like that.

For every one situation where a given model yields a good result, there will be a hundred where it’s of no use at all. Because of this, leaning on strategic models is something of a crap shoot. Maybe the one you favour will work here. And maybe it won’t. But you won’t know until after the fact.

Worse than simply being often ineffective, models can be so intoxicating that practitioners will often damage the company just so they can adhere to the model – a classic cart leading the horse scenario. A well publicised example of this is the popular “start with why” framework. Many companies have tied themselves in knots searching for their “why”, and as a result ended up with bad strategies – because they never considered that this model might not fit for them. Yup, not everyone needs a why.

The truth is that all strategy comes down to is:

Finding a pattern of action that is uniquely well fitted to the given situation.

That’s it. That is literally and absolutely all there is to it.

Such a brief is far too fluid lend itself to anything so rigid as a model. It’s like trying to create a masterpiece using paint by numbers. Sure, the result will look competent – more professional than just splodging paint on the canvas. But it’s pretty unlikely to be optimal.

The one exception I will make is using models to provide heuristics. In other words: thought experiment models. Ones that help you look at a problem from a different point of view.

For example one that I came up with which works quite well for me is to ask: “what does this company choose to be bad at?”.

Such a question does not yield a strategy directly – and nor does it even promise to be useful – but it can help you understand the whole picture.

Personally I don’t really consider this a model, but you could call it that – and indeed there are other strategic models out there that fit more into this “thought experiment” box than the “panacea” one.

Ultimately strategic models aren’t going away. They do lend a lot of security – and occasionally some good ideas – to people who aren’t fully attuned to strategic thinking. And of course they enable various consultancies to command big juicy fees thanks to their “proprietary model” that you won’t get anywhere else (ugh).

But I’m sorry to say nothing beats just looking at a problem with openness, inquisitiveness, and humility – and simply figuring things out.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.