Managers should use both commander and designer approaches to solve problems

Academics argue that the complexity of modern business requires increased mental ambidexterity to solve strategic challenges.

Commander attitudes to problem solving and Designer attitudes to problem solving should not be mutually exclusive, but should complement each other, according to the authors of MAST: Mental Ambidexterity in Strategic Thinking.

As organisations synergise their activities across industries and competition increases in speed and ferocity, problems become more complex and often require those tasked with solving them to move away from traditional approaches to doing so.

In their article Lorenzo Massa, from EPFL and the University of Bologna, and Simone Ferriani, of Cass Business School and the University of Bologna, use the case of former mobile telecommunications giant Nokia to highlight the constantly changing nature of business and industry.

“Back in 2001, then-Nokia chairman Jorma Ollila stated that the mobile Internet would have remained “under the control of the mobile industry”. From the perspective of Nokia, at that time a dominant player in the mobile telecommunication industry, this claim may well have made perfect sense. It did not, however, when computer manufacturers such as Apple entered the industry by offering mini-computers and Internet mobile devices with phone capabilities. These new entrants demonstrated that once well-defined industry boundaries did no longer hold.”

The authors argue that as strategists and managers have realised the need to adapt to changing norms many have turned from a ‘Commander attitude’ to problem solving to a ‘Designer attitude’.

The Commander vs The Designer



Management as the science of rational decision making

Management as the art of creating visions and pathways

Winning this game

Changing the game

Anticipation: prepare to react to forces that can materialise in the future

Ambition: Design and create the future

Forecasting: on the basis of the past we can assess or, at least, develop scenarios

Backcasting: depict a vision of a desirable future, then sketch a plan of what to do in order to get there

Decision making

Decision enabling

Pipeline value creation

Orchestration of multiple value streams

Transaction based

Relationship based

As can be seen in the authors’ table, the commander and the designer are fundamentally different in their approaches to strategic thinking.

What the authors stress, however, is that neither attitude is necessarily right nor wrong; rather, a balance between the two is perhaps the best approach to contemporary problem solving.

The authors write:

“A design mindset supports the envisioning of alternatives that may lie outside of the boundaries of how we traditionally see the world. But it takes a commander’s mindset to rationally evaluate among those alternatives and make the bold moves that are sometimes needed to pursue them.”

It is a trait that Professor Ferriani and Professor Massa have witnessed in their experience studying and working with hundreds of executives over the course of the last decade; a cognitive capability they define as Mental Ambidexterity in Strategic Thinking (MAST).

Three Principles for MAST

The authors, drawing on their experience with managers displaying MAST capability, suggest three core principles they believe act as a catalyst for it.

Reflective consciousness

Accepting that one’s individual view of the world can sometimes negatively affect decision making processes explains, in part, the concept of reflective consciousness.

Professor Ferriani and Dr Massa write:

“Reflective consciousness is about accepting the existence of alternatives, in particular when those are outside the boundaries of how we see the world.”

The authors suggest that this attitude is most often displayed by managers who introspectively challenge themselves, show curiosity about the views and suggestions of others, listen intently, often ask ‘why’ and meditate.

Contingent thinking

As MAST requires balance between two seemingly opposed principles, so does contingent thinking.

Rather than immediately rejecting or enthusiastically accepting a new idea, contingent thinking requires individuals to ask questions of it.

“Questions such as: under what condition is this idea potentially useful? For what classes of problems does it offer a valuable solution?”, the authors write.

Poking into Ambiguity

Perhaps the most difficult principle of MAST to master, poking into ambiguity means going against one’s primal instinct to avoid threats.

Professor Ferriani and Dr Massa write that humans naturally perceive ambiguity as a threat because it introduces uncertainty.

“Avoidance of the non-pleasant feelings related to ambiguous situations encourage early selection of familiar solutions rather than openness to alternatives.”

The authors argue that ambiguity, in that it offers a variety of possible solutions or interpretations to problems, should be encouraged to a certain extent.

The full article is available for download through the City Research Online portal.

Featured Bayes Experts