Clients say, ‘What’s your strategy,‘ and I say, ‘Ask me what I believe first.’
That’s a far more enduring answer.
“Without strategy, content is just stuff, and the world has enough stuff.”
Alvin Toffler wrote in 1990 in discussion this business shift:
“Anyone who believes that we’re just going to leap into some sort of glorious new age is very unrealistic … far-reaching turmoil can be expected, as individuals and institutions either adapt to, or resist, change.”
I have written about strategic thinking many times but one of the most read things I have ever written had to do with what I believe is the new normal for strategic approach <future business thinking & future business model> where I outline strategy is shifting from more of a strategic plan & implement model to a strategic stake in the ground & adapt to reality model.
Regardless of the model at the core of an organization’s strategic perspective are its people. Leaders can dictate strategy as much as they want but inevitably it is how their employees ‘think’ which will enable a vision to come to life.
I have always believed the best organizations have a mix of reasonable people <most>, unreasonable people <some> and visionaries <little>. With that formula in mind I continue to believe not only is the timing right for a new strategic perspective but that the time demands we approach strategy differently.
I believe this mainly for two reasons:
- Technology has created a generational change in how strategy is viewed <in a good way>
- Speed to adapt versus solid to market
Technology has changed everything with regard to how we think, how we act and how we strategize. Speed has woven its way into every aspect of strategy: speed to trust, speed to simplicity, speed to optimism and speed to adapt & inevitably organizational agility.
While I believe this … I fully understand why many will be hesitant to take the new strategic approach.
In my long read narrative I outlined the ‘how different generations think’ aspect & today I focus more on risk & how you navigate risk. This topic is at the core of any new strategic planning process because we currently live in a risk-averse business world. Business leaders instinctively assume that risks outweigh possibilities almost 95% of the time <I made that % up>. While, frankly speaking, both possibilities and risks are ‘unknowns’ <speculative assessments> for some reason risks appear larger than possibilities and maybe that is so because risks can take on a variety of forms.
There are two basic kinds of risks.
Risks we can’t predict.
Risks that have been created by flawed assumptions made in the past but have been accepted as “givens”.
Yet. I don’t really care how you define a particular risk because when assessed they almost all seem to fall into the BHAG category <big, hairy, audacious goal>, or, ‘scary things to do.’The sense of any risk pushes back against any desire someone may have had to stretch outside their comfort zone. In fact. This feeling can become so strong someone doesn’t even decide upon challenges that make us a little nervous. This is a double negative in that because we do not even have new experiences to grow in confidence <we find things less scary after we actually do them>. People tend to magnify risk and discount reward when faced with rapid change and high uncertainty, prompting them to delay action or, at best, to make very modest and tentative moves.
I say all this as a preface to discussing strategy shifts because as more & more businesses seek ‘agility’ as a goal they will be more demanding of people to make decisions – i.e., take some risks.
“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”
In general what I am speaking of is grounded in scenario strategic planning but with a Bruce twist. Most scenario planning models assess the landscape as an array of probabilities. Data wealthy driven assessments of a Future world. My version leans more into organizational knowledge because I believe if you can weave through bias blind spots a development of future state scenarios is not only possible but contains the elements of pragmatism the organization needs. What I typically encourage is a bookend scenario conclusion, i.e., the future state appears likely to be like this or this. Call them 2 mountains on the horizon. This enables an organization to envision an organization capable of zig zagging its way around an ever changing landscape not aiming toward one specific destination but more often the rich pastures which reside in between the mountains <with an ability to veer directly to one or the other as opportunity arises>.
Why do I do it this way?
- It’s no longer a linear world.
In an multi dimensional world, it stands to reason that our traditional, linear approaches to strategy will need to be re-thought. strategies re now shaped by velocity and not by speed.
As Farnam Street pointed out speed doesn’t demand progress while velocity is defined by progress.
Traditionally we have looked at speed for strategy. This is efficiency in gaining our objectives & milestones. There is an inherent evenness in this approach. A desire to maintain consistency above all <as a means in attaining the strategy objectives>. In this view a strategist viewed the forest seeking positional advantages for the business to occupy and then create plans to occupy them. The grander view was one of a relatively static landscape where dynamics were driven only really by a forest fire or earthquake <the belief that that ground would remain relatively firm & changes were simply small obstacles worthy of being ignored in the grand scheme of things>.
This puts an emphasis on speed to get things done as a means of getting where you want to go.
The world changed where the world is more like The Matrix morphing in fits & starts & evolving unevenly at a faster rate increasing overall uncertainty.
This forces strategy to start taking a closer looks at trees rather than forest and velocity of actions rather than speed. You start leaning in on competencies more rather than possible competencies (<I sometimes call this the ‘stress of survival on strategy’>.
This word change also forces strategy to incorporate more nimbleness than linear thinking encouraged. It became a less straight line sledgehammer emphasis and more navigation emphasis. Strategy began taking on more ‘short term needs’ rather than long view wants. Strategy became, well, narrow. It left the big stuff to vision.
Here’s the problem. This seems less risky in narrowing decisions to the moment but it actually increases risk organizationally especially if you have grounded yourself on competencies which can be side swiped by someone who is better, faster & cheaper than you in that competency. Even worse? Your competency is the best at something that now is no longer needed or valued.
The other challenge strategy now encounters is putting guardrails on resources <which it has never ad to do before in a linear world>. All of a sudden strategy has to decide where to invest versus where not to invest. If it doesn’t, than the company risks racing to respond to all incoming actions without any ability to prioritize.
2 things can happen here:
- Efforts continuously thin out and by the time you get where you want to go you don’t have the resources to effectively occupy the spot you want. You do a lot and get nowhere.
- The activity is so overwhelming the strategy actually ‘freezes.’ Huh? You kill yourself overthinking everything for fear of risk <making the wrong decisions>.
“We are dying from overthinking. We are slowly killing ourselves by thinking about everything. Think. Think. Think. You can never trust the human mind anyway. It’s a death trap.”
- Velocity and trajectory
What we need to do at this point is to step back and reassess at a more basic level our approach to strategy. Rather than focusing on terrain, however narrowly or broadly defined, perhaps we should shift our attention to trajectory.
Here’s the paradox. At precisely the time that change is accelerating and uncertainty increasing, we need more than ever to have a clearer view of the possible trajectory of change and how it will reshape the future the strategy will exist in. at the same time e also need to assess what role we, and our strategy, can have in shaping the Future through our actions. Rather than simply taking them as a given. Our strategies need to contain velocity & trajectory to be competitive in an ever evolving environment.
This takes a little bit of insightful futuristic guessing <wow, there’s a word that will make every business sweat>. Rather than looking from the present out to the future, we need to look from the future back to the present to determine which actions will have the greatest impact and create the most economic value over time. The most effective strategies will be those that know where they are going and have the agility to accelerate into the most promising windows of opportunity.
The challenge is the strategy must focus on the most attractive and advantaged positions in future landscapes, not the current landscape, which does not even exist in the present.
Yes. The most advantaged positions in the future will tend to emerge and be shaped by significant economies of scale and network effects that will play out very quickly once critical mass has been achieved. Playing a wait and see game in the hope that things will become clearer over time can be very dangerous. By the time you see what’s happening, it may be too late to do anything about it. Fast followers in an exponential world will increasingly find that they are on a path to the grave.
- Proactively shaping the future
In times of rapid change and growing uncertainty, we actually have far more degrees of freedom to restructure entire markets and industries than in more stable times. Yet, senior executives often fall into a passive, reactive posture in these kinds of environments, rather than exploring how they might proactively shape the future. Shaping strategies are classic strategies of trajectory – they begin by defining a desired market or industry structure and then focus on mobilizing third parties to invest to support the shaping strategy. Strategies of trajectory are ultimately about measuring movement in a particular direction. Any strategy of trajectory must therefore be explicit about the metrics that will indicate whether we’re on track to establishing the desired position in the future.
Here is the last challenge. The past rarely teaches us how to manage the future <let alone predict it>. Strategists, and business, needs to resist the temptation to focus on indicators telling us how we have done. Wherever possible, identify operating metrics that are effective leading indicators of the kind of performance you are seeking to achieve. And focus on operating metrics that are specific to the desired position in the future even if these operating metrics are marginal to your current business performance.
Here’s the next thought that will make businesses sweat: forget about performance snapshots that focus on your performance at any specific point in time. Strategies of trajectory focus on acceleration – they’re about performance over time. Is your performance stable, increasing linearly or accelerating? If it’s not accelerating in an exponential world, something is wrong. So, strategies of trajectory are relentlessly focused on patterns of movement over time. What exists in the present is important, but only to the extent that it provides resources to support you to be agile enough to get you where you want to go by enabling small moves, smartly made, to get big things in motion
“The world is not as simple as we like to make it out to be. The outlines are often vague and it’s the details that count. Nothing is really truly black or white and bad can be a disguise for good or beauty … and vice versa without one necessarily excluding the other.
Someone can both love and betray the object of its love … without diminishing the reality of the true feelings <and value>.
Life <and business whether we like to admit it or not> is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape whose borders are constantly shifting where all frontiers are artificial <therefore unique is basically artificial in its inevitable obseletion> where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again … or finish suddenly forever … like an unexpected blow from an axe.
Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality … is death. We have such little time when you look at Life … a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights.
Everything has to do with everything else.
Life is a succession of events that link with each other whether we want them to or not.”
Arturo Perez Revarte
- Strategy and the organizational future.
When people discuss strategy far too often they ignore managing the organization. It is almost like they forget that they are not developing a concept but rather a path to success for a business. I do believe many strategy people are too philosophical or esoteric. By that I mean if they truly have confidence in whatever strategic perspective they are providing than they need to acknowledge the true organizational repercussions.
In a time of agility, learning <and unlearning> is essential to success. Whatever we know today is depreciating in value at an increasing rate. Velocity in navigating a multi dimensional world is ultimately about how to accelerate learning at scale.
The paradox <or contradiction>: the more time we take to reflect on our experiences, the faster we’ll be able to move. I would note this is only true if the business has a clear vision. The vision puts guardrails on the reflection so that the thinking, and learning, has a purpose.
The future of strategy is uncertain <but it’s certain to play an important role>. In fact, the only thing we truly know about the future is that it will be different from today. I state that point because this translates into specific organizational design and people and culture.
If we do not have a detailed blueprint of that future landscape – all we need is enough detail to give us a sense of direction and to help us make some difficult choices in the near-term. You need empowered people to adapt the strategy to the swirling surface events that emerge unpredictably and just as quickly disappear.
Strategy in this environment is becoming more and more difficult and will not permit is to fall back into our comfort zone and just focus on the present, leaving us vulnerable to the changes just ahead. Only a few will venture beyond their comfort zone. Those few who craft strategies to focus action today based on an anticipated future that’s quite different from today will be in the best position to reap the rewards of a rapidly changing environment. They will stand out from the rest of us who are scrambling to respond to the latest event and, in the process, spreading our limited time and resources more and more thinly.
This will demand a skill at scenario development. This will also demand a skill of unlearning <as scenarios dissolve & recreate before our eyes>. Yes. “Unlearning” means strategy will have to abandon some of our most basic beliefs about how the world works and what is required for success. I’m a proponent of scenario development as a tool to identify, assess and ultimately achieve alignment around potential futures. One of the great elements of scenario development is that it explicitly starts with the proposition of alternative futures. That in itself helps to pull us out of our comfort zones and challenges our preconceptions about where the future is headed. But, from my experience, this needs to be combined with two other elements to really challenge our most deeply held beliefs about the world around us and about the actions that will lead to success.
- It will demand what Toffler suggested: porous organizations where different skills combine to make multi dimension teams envisioning a multi-dimensional future. These teams will constantly challenge not only the overarching strategy but, ultimately, poke & prod at the leadership vision.
- It will demand agile overarching initiatives. Within scenario development the organization is aligned on the most likely scenarios and the key initiatives to position the business within that scenario <and resources/funding aligned behind them>.
Neither of these things embrace a passive mindset. In fact. I could argue these two things are in conflict with each other <therefore insuring learning, unlearning & some agility>.
Agility isn’t just a strategy it’s a corporate mindset which flows into every aspect of how an organization thinks, approaches tings & does things. I end there because all of this talk about “agile companies” is just stupid unless a business embraces it as way of doing things not just aspects or projects.
Sourcing: This piece has lain dormant in my draft folder for over 3 years as I honed my own scenario strategic planning quasi-skills, therefore, any sources I may have used to access some thoughts have gone by the wayside. I apologize if I veered a little too closely to some else’s thoughts & would be pleased if someone asked for some credit. All thoughts in this piece are things I have discussed for years.