Strategy that makes your hands bleed

I’m mildly addicted to cable TV.  I simply can’t get enough of two shows on Discovery Channel: Dirty Jobs and Build it Bigger.  Both of these shows revolve around a witty, game, and willing host who puts himself in to the middle of projects where things are being built, renovated, restored, maintained, or torn down.  These aren’t shows about stuff, they’re shows about the reality of making stuff and keeping stuff viable.  I call them "build" shows because they deal with atoms, not just ideas, and atoms tend to have a mind of their own… building things is a tough past time.  Talking about doing things is one thing; doing them is quite another.

I’m a big believer in knowing how to build things before you begin to decide what to build.  In other words, at an individual, team, group, and organizational level, deeply understand execution before you engage in strategy.  If innovation is about using ideas to make a change in the world, then the ability to execute is vital, and the ability to know what can be executed is even more important.  Building informs one’s ability to know what will work the next time you go to the strategy board.

Building is not only important as a way to shape one’s ability to formulate strategy.  Especially important is the notion that building is strategy, or that building as you go is a key way to coax an emergent strategy in to being.  The other day I was shooting the breeze with a colleague who made the observation that the way we (him, me, and design thinkers in general) formulate strategy is by making our hands bleed.  We in other words, we take our notions of strategy and build them, whether they be of bricks or bytes, and we let the results kick the crap our of precious notions of what should have worked.  Sometimes building a prototype will literally cut your fingers  — or, heaven forbid, take them off — but even a HTML protoype can deal a nasty sting to one’s ego.  But that’s the way to go. Know by doing, do because you know.

Perhaps strategy should make your hands bleed.