Foundations: Dilemma Archetypes

Take apart any strategic dilemma and you will find a basic struggle occurring between opposing forces; Quality vs. Speed; Time vs. Money, Risk vs. Reward. These eight Archetypal Dilemmas offer thematic groupings of common struggles. Each archetype is a response to a particular question or challenge.

Download the Archetypal Dilemmas Self-Assessment, a short exercise that will help you identify the most important dilemmas currently facing your firm, and suggests first steps in approaching these issues.

Head & Heart

Key Question: How can I choose between these?

Description: The toughest choices are between doing what makes sense and what feels right. Achieving alignment between the 2 is a source of great power.

Scenario: Selecting the low-bid supplier will end a meaningful 10-year relationship with the existing one.

Inside & Outside

Key Question: How do we meet the demands being placed on us?

Description: Systems do best when they are well matched to the demands of their external contexts. Matches of greatest interest are structure, competencies, and culture.

Scenario: Acme co is losing customers. A satisfaction survey indicates the likely cause is poor after-sales service.

Cost / Benefit

Key Question: What is the price of getting what we want?

Description: Efforts to predict the future involve risk, and choosing the course of least pain and greatest gain.

Scenario: The ad campaign is necessary, but is it worth the investment in these tough economic times?

Product / Market

Key Question: Given this starting point, what are our options?

Description: You can change the essential offering or you can modify how, where or when it is presented.

Scenario: MacDonald’s started as a local burger joint in San Bernardino, California. The same product formula is now served in over 30,000 locations around the world.

Change vs. Stability

Key Question: What do we need to do to adapt? How much change is healthy? How do we get unstuck without falling apart?

Description: Systems of all size and nature are in perpetual dynamic tension between the forces for growth & adaptation on the one hand and integration and stability on the other. Too much of either is deadly, leading to chaos or rigidity.

Scenario: Recognizing that a new manufacturing process was essential, a company wisely invests in training staff ahead of the change.

Know / Don’t Know

Key Question: What is known, what is not, and what is known about what is or isn’t known?


Self-knowledge is mapped against Others’ knowledge.

Different forms or levels of knowledge represent problems and opportunities

Scenario: Since no one would tell the emperor he wore no clothes, he became an object of ridicule.

Competing Priorities

Key Question: What should I do first? What’s really more important?

Description: We are driven to shortsighted trade-offs, relieving immediate pressure and pain, but postponing tackling truly important tasks.

Scenario: Clear-cutting the world’s forests is making forestry companies rich and the planet poor.

Content vs. Process

Key Question: Are Content & Process healthy and aligned?

Description: Content is the What, process the How. Success in most things requires a sufficient mastery of both of these qualities.

Scenario: Your words are saying yes, but your eyes say no. When a company like Dofasco says, “Our product is steel, our strength is our people”, they are recognizing the interdependency between the what and the how.

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