Alex Steer

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Startup strategy and 'framing contests'

381 words | ~2 min

By some roundabout route I found myself reading this paper today, by Sarah Kaplan of the Wharton Business School. It introduces the idea that when people get together to set strategy for a business, they end up in a 'framing contest' - a fight between competing individual worldviews, all trying to turn themselves into a consensus:

Frames are the means by which managers make sense of ambiguous information from their environments. Actors each had cognitive frames about the direction the market was taking and about what kinds of solutions would be appropriate. Where frames about a strategic choice were not congruent, actors engaged in highly political framing practices to make their frames resonate and to mobilize action in their favor. Those actors who most skillfully engaged in these practices shaped the frame which prevailed in the organization.

It's a good read, and made me think about startups - especially those in new sectors (like big data).

Startups get a lot of criticism for being willing to sell anything to anyone, often long before their strategy has been defined. And of course for selling slideware, vapourware, Photoshopware, and various other kinds of -ware which mean you don't yet have a product/service/offer and are trying to get your clients to fund your R&D.

Seen through Kaplan's lens, this becomes less a fault than an early-stage survival tactic. Rather than studying the market, setting a strategy, building a roadmap then going to the market to attract clients, startups are outsourcing their framing contests. You could call them 'framing auctions'. Defining a minimum viable strategy, then having a lot of conversations with a lot of different clients and seeing which ones lead to a sale, deal, pilot project, etc. Put this way, the definitional slipperiness of most startups becomes a way of getting prospective clients to take part in your framing contest.

This can cause sleepless nights for the pure-minded, but may be a pretty smart way to start building a brand. There's a bigger question about whether strategic planning works for startups, and even for emerging sectors, or whether a broader-based foresight model is the best way to start preparing for the different ways a market might go.

# Alex Steer (13/04/2013)