Adding Scientific Rigor to Strategic Planning

Topic(s): business strategy, creativity
Publication: Harvard Business Review (2012)
Article: Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy
Authors: A.G. Lafley, R.L. Martin, J.W. Rivkin, N. Siggelkow
Reviewed by: Megan Leasher

Strategic planners may pride themselves on their ideas, but proceed with a less-than-stellar, not-so-innovative idea. They then wonder why the organization doesn’t swoon with delight. Authors (Lafley et al., 2012) assert that a key component of science may be missing in these proceedings: the inquiry. They argue that the scientific method must first begin with the brainstorming of novel hypotheses, then proceed into the design and testing of these hypotheses. The authors detail a series of steps that incorporate the inquiry of science into strategic planning to achieve a more creative, successful, and efficient direction.


The first step is the key differentiator of the entire process. This step entails identifying at least two mutual exclusive options to resolving the issue at hand. All options must be framed as pure possibilities, devout of criticism, skepticism, and analysis. This is where the invention and inquiry of science comes into play. This is where we get to be creative designers and dream into the realm of pure possibility. The authors describe possibility as any “happy story that describes how a firm might succeed” (p. 59).

Then the list of possibilities is broadened and time is taken to identify what conditions must hold true in order for each possibility to succeed. Conditions may include things like customer support, market sustainability, or feasibility of supply. All conditions must be framed positively, so that everyone feels confident in success if all conditions were to hold true. Judgment, skepticism, and analysis are not yet allowed, so that all possibilities continue to be framed as positive. After this, barriers that would prevent each condition to hold true are identified and ranked. We now allow judgment and skepticism through the door, but analysis must still wait outside.

The next step is where experiments are designed to test the barriers to each condition. We must ask: What are the right questions that will lead us to answers that we can have faith in? As the authors mention, tests can be as simple as talking to a supplier, or as complicated as surveying thousands of customers.

We then conduct the tests and allow the scientific analysis to begin. It’s time to put on our goggles, get data happy, and crunch the numbers. The authors assert that the first test should always be of the condition that the group feels will least likely hold true. If the test fails and the barrier is confirmed true, no further testing is needed and the possibility is rejected. If the condition passes the test, move on to the next condition unlikely to hold true, and so on. Tests for a possibility should only be conducted sequentially, never in parallel, to conserve effort and resources.

Lastly, the final possibility is selection. After reviewing the results of all tests of the barriers, the group simply picks the solution with the fewest serious barriers left standing. It is a relavitvely simple, anticlimactic step; all of the hard work has already been completed and we are left with practically a simple tally count. It is important to call out that testing barriers to conditions provides evidence, not proof. Evidence still requires human judgment that is fully aware that risk is always present.


This framework has much potential. But controlling judgment and skepticism early on is a monumental challenge; this process requires a shift in mindset and determined, focused group leaders who can direct participants to frame all choices as possibilities for success. Plus, many people like to jump right into the test design and analysis. However, scientific rigor demands more of us, and may even lead to success and invention beyond our current capacity.


Lafley, A. G., Martin, R. L., Rivkin, J. W., Siggelkow, N. (Sept 2012).  Bringing science to the art of strategy. Harvard Business Review, 57-66.