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Strategic Reasoning in Four Conceptual Views


The four conceptual framework of strategic reasoning recognizes that there are varying degrees of tractability (tameness or manageability) present in the situations that practitioners face. The framework also considers levels of ambiguity (from purely objective accounts of reality to the most subjective ones). When these continua are crossed (tractable-unambiguous, and intractable-ambiguous), the resultant four sources of strategic reasoning: programmatic (appropriate for most tractable and least ambiguous situations); planning (for less tractable and lesser ambiguous situations); participative (for the more tractable, yet more ambiguous situations); and, reflective (for the least tractable and most ambiguous situations).



Programmatic based Strategic reasoning

For situations diagnosed as “tractable-objective,” strategy is the best served with a programmatic logic. Here, practitioners view strategy as the structured process of employing technology to solve recurrent problems.  Another name for this form of ends-based reasoning is using “technical rationality” (i.e., strategies are pre-engineered solutions or technologies). Here, strategic problems are recognized with respect to what is known about solutions to recurrent problems; that is, there is a tight coupling between the process of problem identification and the solutions that already exist. This is the most extreme form of ends-based rationality because it assumes solutions are technically available (i.e., situations that draw attention become problems only when strategists see them as amenable to well-defined solutions).  Reasoning is a recognition
and matching process.

As such, programmatic competence depends on technical rationality, defined as “the application of theories and techniques derived from systemic, preferably scientific research to the solution of the instrumental problems.” The strength of this form of reasoning is that education can be oriented on the known-knowns. Strategists can call upon technical expertise found in the hard science disciplines such as physics, systems engineering, operations research, computer science, and so on. Reasoning becomes a pairing process where situations are broken down into tractable problems which can be addressed with these proven techniques; hence, the problems are actually defined by the solutions. Programmatic strategic-reasoning requires an objective-view of reality, like considering the physical positioning of forces.


Planning based Strategic reasoning

Planning forms of strategic reasoning involves planning, or “formalized procedure to produce an articulated result, in the form of an integrated system of decisions” that are interpreted by policymakers as being important to future success. Planning is associated with convergent knowledge in that it involves a reasoned approach to excluding other possible courses of action. Planning addresses more intractable situations where known technologies are inadequate to define the problem and where convergent knowledge (i.e., discovery of viable courses of action by synthesizing known-knowns and excluding alternatives) is prevalent. The degree of complexity of the situation is aligned with an equal complexity of solutions.

Like programmatic reasoning, reasoning-through-planning involves understanding historic precedent. In addition, planning requires modifications to precedent based on the degree of intractability of the situation.
Defining the problem cannot be clearly or simply linked to a known technology. The strategic planner looks for new ways to combine technologies over time. Hence the situation becomes a problem when the strategist sees it as amenable to his composition of selected solutions over time. The complexity of the problem becomes more definitive with the creation of blended-solutions.
The technological emphasis shifts from matching (the emphasis in strategic programming) to “bricolating,” where the latter involves the more inventive processes of kluging solutions. Because there is an inherent risk involved in kluging solutions (i.e., the uncertainty as to whether the concoction will work), the planner takes precautions through the creation of contingency plans. A useful metaphor to understand reasoning- through-planning are the techniques and aesthetics of composers of orchestra music. Of all the possible combinations and permutations of musical notes, the composer converges on relatively few; they sound good, they resonate, and are aesthetically pleasing.

Participative based Strategic reasoning

Participative forms of strategic reasoning rely on the relatively unstructured process of accommodating multiple ways of contextualizing situations. Methods of strategy here represent the antithesis of programmatic or planning ways of thinking. In this paradigm, meaning is negotiated through interpretation and social interactions. Because the situation is highly ambiguous (i.e., there are multiple interpretations of what is going on and what to do about it), participative reasoning requires the understanding of multiple viewpoints and trying to shape them into a consensus or at least appreciate the intractability of reaching consensus. This may involve lengthy dialogue, diplomacy, deception, coalition-building, negotiating, use of propaganda, confrontation, and other forms of participative decision making.

Both here and with the reflective paradigm , there “is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas” or agreeing to them.
In the process of negotiating shared meaning, the participative paradigm may shift to one or more of the other three types of reasoning (see Figure). The dominant metaphor for this mode of reasoning is the pluralistic form of politics, emphasizing these concepts: sense of community; sense of common interests and problems; the paradox of cooperation and competition; groups and organizations are “building blocks;” “information is interpretive, incomplete, and strategic;” and, where the “laws of passion” may trump the laws of physics.


Multiple interpretations of what is going on and what needs to be done define the ambiguous nature of strategy under the participative paradigm (in other words, “politics”). The strategist is best served by diagnosing progress by discerning which form of reasoning seems to be more applicable to approach accommodation. This is not to say that randomness, hidden-agendas, guile, and other “Machiavellian” aspects of negotiating a strategy do not come into play; so, “ends-based rationality” may still play a deceptive premise for preset agendas and decision making. The participative mode is most linked to accommodative knowledge that requires flexibility of thought (e.g., temporarily suspending disbelief in other ways to frame or describe the situation at hand) while accepting more unstructured and intangible ways of negotiation.  Unstructured strategy making may be defined as “decision processes that have not been encountered in quite the same form and which no predetermined and explicit set of ordered responses exists in the organization” or among the institutions represented.  This sort of unstructured strategy making then is a groping or muddling through, messy, and recursive process that requires a certain patience for participative forms of reasoning and a tolerance for building accommodation. Instead of a comprehensive approach to strategy, the resulting strategy becomes a series of successive limited comparisons. For very novel situations (such as those uniquely encountered in countering insurgencies) the strategic reasoning method is “muddling through”—an ill-structured series of incremental recontextualizations. In other words we act, assess, react, and so forth, comparing the situation now to what it previously was to look for “improvements.” Whether these comparisons reflect improvement is a socially negotiated consensus process.

Reflection based Strategic reasoning

Strategic reasoning under conditions of high ambiguity and intractability (also characterized as “messes” or “wicked problems”) is characterized by the relatively unstructured process of practitioner sensemaking while being mindful of his own limitations. In strategic reflection, divergent knowledge is required as practitioners come to a realization that they face large-scale, complex, or chaotic situations where institutionalized knowledge is insufficient or nonexistent. Such reasoning becomes the unstructured process of sensemaking, through abductive reasoning, in highly complex and subjective situations, while reflecting critically on an opaque awareness that there are many “unknown unknowns.”

Indications that reflexive forms of reasoning should prevail occur when there is the realization that situations are more than complicated and complex than “problems”; are highly ambiguous; contain considerable uncertainty—even as to what the conditions are, let alone what the appropriate actions might be; are tightly interconnected—economically, socially, politically, and technologically—and, appear paradoxical.  Here there is no chance of routine application of professional knowledge because practical knowledge will have to be invented as we go (i.e., divergent forms of knowledge are required).
New rules to govern inquiry have to be created in the face of anarchical situations and then those too will have to be also questioned as to whether the new way of reasoning seems to be working. For the reflective practitioner, these novel situations reveal“indeterminate zones of practice” (also known as artistry).  The dominant metaphor for reflective reasoning is the “improvisational art;” hence, whereas planning is associated with orchestration, reflection may be better associated with improvisational jazz.


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