A picture of the book Janus Strategy

Two-faced: Janus Strategy describes an ambidextrous approach which Apple has mastered

Companies have to deal with competing goals such as achieving high quality at low cost, empowering individuals while retaining control, or achieving agility at scale. To deal with such challenges, the right strategic mindset and organisational choices are needed. 

A Janus strategist can simultaneously hold contradictory ideas in their mind (such as the two poles of a dilemma or a paradox), who does not seek to simplify and collapse these ideas to either/or binary interpretations, and who strives for novel solutions that transcend contradictions and the constraints imposed by any single idea. 

I worded this in the singular form for ease of reference, but it could just as easily be a number of strategists, whether or not they are formally labeled as such. Individuals who can see the big picture in relation to current operational demands and who can conceive of the trends leading into the future and their operational implications, deserve to be called strategists whether or not the organisation recognises them as such.

It is worth examining in more detail the thought processes that may be involved. Harvard psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg’s research on Janusian thinking identified four phases of the creative process of Nobel prize-winning scientists: the motivation to create or innovate; separation or deviation from the dominant perspectives; bringing together of opposites when contemplating challenges of the field; and finally creating theory where the insights are stated in a more linear, causal or propositional way. 

If we relate these four phases to organisational leaders who we can identify as Janus strategists, we see similar themes. First, they are motivated to create something different, to push the envelope, because they feel that a new process, offering, or way of organising is needed to address particular challenges. Examples include Devi Shetty at Indian healthcare group Narayana, the leadership team of Singapore Airlines, Steve Jobs at Apple, and the pirates at NASA.

Second, in every one of these examples, these leaders’ thinking deviated from the dominant perceptions and solutions. Dr Shetty conceived of and created a new business model in a notoriously inertial sector, healthcare. 

At the founding of the airline, Singapore Airlines leaders aimed for both service excellence and intense internal efficiency, an approach that was unique at that point in the aviation industry. 

Steve Jobs, through Apple, brought user-friendly personal computing to the masses at a time when using a computer had been a complex and frustrating undertaking by people who were not scientists or engineers. Jobs then restructured the music industry through the iPod and introduced the iPhone that blurred industry boundaries through technology convergence. 

The NASA pirates aimed to develop mission control technology that would shift the agency’s reliance from the established mainframe model to the new approach of distributed computing.

Third, all these leaders sought to transcend binary tensions and find solutions that were both/and rather than either/or. Narayana Health delivers high quality healthcare at a fraction of the cost of not just Western but also other local Indian health facilities. 

Singapore Airlines operates along four paradoxes with the primary one being cost effective service excellence. Apple is a high-end competitor recognised for world-class innovation, yet also operates at a surprising level of efficiency. The NASA pirates delivered a system that had both higher and expanded functionality; yet was also considerably cheaper to operate than the prior system.

Rothenberg’s fourth element was the creation of theory based on the insights gained. Nobel prize-winning scientists eventually had to express their emergent and often unexpected paradoxical insights in a more linear, causal, testable format. Applying the analogy to organisational leaders, we can see this as corresponding to the development of particular business models that encompass those insights.

Integrative strategic thinking

Janus strategists are holistic, integrative thinkers. In the design of higher education in ancient Greece from around 420BC onwards, the domains of arts and sciences were brought together to inculcate more subtle and holistic ways of thinking and understanding the world. Classical education encompassed dialectic (reasoned arguments between different points of view but wishing to establish the truth), music, gymnastics, astronomy and mathematics.

More recently, psychologists and educators explicitly investigated the idea of integrative thinking. One useful perspective comes from Alan Miller who argued such thinking consists of three components.

In his paper Integrative thinking as a goal of environmental education, Dr Miller said: "1 Complexity: the ability to recognise complex relationships, particularly when dealing with ambiguous, contradictory and incomplete information. 2 Adaptability: an ability to approach problems in new ways when traditional or conventional methods are ineffective and to be able to recognise that new approaches are needed. 3 Open-mindedness: a willingness to see another’s viewpoint, thereby showing openness to interpretations which differ from one’s own.”

This sounds very much like the type of thinking that an effective strategist might do. Strategic challenges reside very much within the domain of the ambiguous, complex and contradictory. The map (mental model), must be able to perceive the subtleties and key aspects of the territory (strategic challenges), so as to satisfy the complexity element above.

Conventional solutions may help an organisation survive, but only going beyond convention in their offerings, business models or processes can organisations reach greatness or at least competitive advantage and to satisfy the adaptability element above. Finally, open-mindedness is one of the best ways to defend against a variety of cognitive biases that pull towards habitual solutions and reinforce existing mental maps rather than extend or reframe mental maps to deal with new kinds of challenges.

Structured, rational frameworks have been suggested to enable integrative thinking, such as a cascade decision process, as explained by Roger Martin in his book The Opposable Mind, starting from identifying the salient parts of a challenge, recognising the causality among these elements in leaders’ mental models, re-arranging causal relationships towards desired outcomes and finally making the best decision possible given the prior analysis. 

Such frameworks and tools are helpful for training and development, and for sensitising leaders to the importance of challenging one’s existing mental maps. Yet, as Rothenberg and others showed, in practice the creative process of gaining ingenious ideas that open new vistas, the sort of thinking that is needed to conceive of Janus strategies, is less structured and even partly unconscious.

It is less about tools and more about a thinking practice. Janus strategists intentionally develop a holistic, integrative mindset over time so that this type of thinking becomes second nature. They consciously refuse to see competing objectives as a zero-sum game and seek to think differently and find synergistic solutions. The leaders and organisations discussed in Janus Strategy illustrate this approach.

This is an exclusive extract from Loizos Heracleous' new book Janus Strategy.


Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches Strategy and Practice on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London).

Follow Loizos Heracleous on Twitter @Strategizing.

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