Is Strategy Lego or a Puzzle?

A “puzzle” is usually something with a “known solution”. The “jigsaw puzzle” is a picture which has been cut into pieces and our “task” is to “fit” all the pieces together in the original way. Assembling an engine from components is a similar task. Crossword puzzles are slightly different in that we need to “recognise” words from two pieces of information (the description and some letters). The best puzzles are those where we don’t know the “end result” but need to somehow “recognise” the end point.

By contrast, a “lego” is a set of components where we have no idea of the end result. We usually “envisage” or “muddle throught” an end result. (Insight: Lego as a company has been very clever in gradually expanding components from civil engineering to mechanical engineering to electronic engineering). A lego model is usually a more “creative” process than a puzzle (though there are lego model diagrams which are more like puzzles).

When we use “generic” strategies (e.g. Michael Porter’s low cost, differentiation and niche strategies) we use the Five Forces model to identify situations in which one of these “generic” strategies is a “best fit”. That’s like “solving a puzzle”. It’s pattern recognition. 

A lego set is more like a set of ingredients used in cooking. We need to develop a “recipe” in order to create the “dish” we envisage. Using the same ingredients, different chefs/CEO’s use different recipes/strategies to achieve dishes/outcomes. Slight variations (omissions of certain ingredients, adding others, the order of mixing) can create very different outcomes. This is science and creativity combined!

In my view, it’s not so much when to use either approach as the degree of skill, knowledge and creativity we can apply.

As a “strategy teacher”, it is much easier to teach “generic strategies” and pattern-recognition approaches to strategy initially and then progress to recipe-making approaches in advanced strategy courses. 

Professor J.C. Spender introduced the idea of strategy as a “recipe” many years ago. It’s worth reading his papers.

Lambros Karavis on LinkedIn.


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