The benefits of modeling your strategy implementation on a jellyfish

Portuguese man o’ war Physalia physalis

The jellyfish has some enviable qualities

Actually, I need to clarify that, I’m not talking about the jellyfish at all, but something that is often mistaken for one. The Portuguese man o’ war.  This character, which has been turning up on our beaches with increasing frequency, is actually a siphonophore.

And, what is fascinating about a siphonophore is that it is not one animal, but a number of small individual animals working together in a colony.

These individual animals are not guided by a directing intelligence.  Critical to their success is the specialization of cells, cooperation between cells, and a body plan to sustain integration.

Each animal attains the function of the larger organism, but remains an individual.  Ultimately the colony lives or dies as a whole.

What if we used the metaphor of the siphonophore to inspire our strategy implementation?

Strategy implementation could be thought of as “creating a living, breathing strategy that engages everyone, guiding the organisation to achieve the best progress towards delivering its purpose”.

A living strategy starts with collaboration, defining the “body plan” or overall direction. Not detailed instructions but a minimal viable strategy that is engaging and is lived day by day.

Cooperation within the organisation is achieved through a more connected approach to strategy implementation.  People that are able and keen to work on issues and opportunities are encouraged to work together.  Solutions are holistic.  The team by nature are cross functional teams and cross hierarchical.

By recognising the unique and important roles that everyone plays in delivering the organisations purpose, leadership is diffused through the organisation. Meaningful conversations are held across functions and levels to increase understanding.

Engagement that helps us identify and adapt to changing circumstances quickly, brings us round in full circle enabling the body plan to pivot from the intended strategy and adopt emerging strategies.

Employing this metaphor in strategy implementation would create focus on engaging individuals in helping the organisation to be the best that it could be.

Injection molding machines in a large factory

The continuing dominance of the machine metaphor

For a long time, we have allowed the metaphor of the machine to permeate our view of how organisations should be structured and guided.  Top down, centrally controlled, efficient but inflexible

Even today in organisations that consider themselves to be more modern we are often expected to arrive at certain times, rest at appointed hours and then resume our tasks until the work is over.  We strive to make the work efficient, effective and reduce the chance of error.

Sometimes this approach makes sense.  Most organisations have parts which are predictable and repeatable that work in a stable environment.  Think about the slick processes employed at some of the global fast food restaurants.

But in most organisations their work will be significantly impacted by the greater human aspects at play, complexity in what needs to be accomplished and a speed of change in external factors.

Applying the machine metaphor creates an organisation that delivers the simple well, but finds it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances, has poor interdepartmental communication and coordination and breeds a feeling of apathy amongst employees.

The sting in the tail

In fact, even the world of machines grasps the restrictions of the machine metaphor.  More and more of our machines are being modelled on living organisms – flexible, adaptive, learning, interconnected.

Maybe it’s time we did the same for our organisations and strategy implementations too?

Then they could deliver a painful sting!

Do you have a great strategy implementation story?  We would love to hear it, please get in contact at

Sarah and New Road Consulting work with leaders who want to create a living, breathing strategy implementation process.  If you are interested in learning more then please visit our website or contact sarah at  .


Recommended further reading

“A leader’s framework for decision making”, David J Snowden and Mary E Boone, Harvard Business Review (Nov 2007)

“Strategy Safari, Your complete guide through the wilds of strategic management”, Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, Lampel, Prentice Hall (2009)

“Images of Organization”, Gareth Morgan, Sage Publications (1997), Dana (2015)