Sunrise vs Sunset Strategy

Image: Mark Easdown.

One of the aspects I most enjoy about conversations is the ideas and insights that arise. Sometimes those conversations are face to face, but more often, these days, they are virtual, and we are learning how to see them as far more than substitutes for “the real thing” to understand they are a real thing in their own right.

The image above came from Mark Easdown in Australia, who sent it after some exchanges. He noticed that I like to use photographs with my blog – a generous gesture much appreciated.
As I reflected on what is happening in traditional organisations dealing with new problems, the image triggered a thought around “sunrise” and “sunset” strategies.

Strategy is a vast area, made even bigger by the thousands of articles, books and consultant proposals created every day. The insight Mark’s image triggered was despite the volume, there are only two sorts that matter.

Sunset strategies are those developed by established organisations feeling the pressure of the emerging new. They want the sun warming them to stay around for longer, and their approach reflects that. Merger, Acquisition, Market share. Dominate and harvest. I can almost hear Joe Cocker singing “don’t let the sun go down on me” in the background. Sunset strategies are full of details, goals, forecasts and evidence. They belong in the hierarchy at head office and are the source of myriad short term directives and incentives to those in the field to keep the sun shining a little longer.

Sunrise strategies are different. They are content to set strategy in the dark, knowing that the sun will rise and that when it does, it will give enough light to illuminate the landscape of a new day. They are set by emergent businesses and set direction more than detail. They are happy to provide those in the field authority to do what is necessary as they encounter it. They are agile not because they have been on training courses; they are agile because of their culture.

We have seen a disturbing example of sunset versus sunrise strategies this week. If we leave the highly contentious values of the Taliban to one side for a moment, the unfolding situation in Afghanistan speaks volumes. On one side, trillions of dollars, the most sophisticated technology available, following plans and timetables set by people far away who rely on maps. On the other, people with small arms, no technology other than, apparently, Whatsapp, who know the territory and don’t need maps.

There are many other complexities – leadership, engagement, commitment to cause, history. Still, the end result is thata sunset strategy lasting twenty years, at enormous cost in blood and treasure, has been unseated, effectively unopposed, in days. It is tragic for those involved as they face instant disruption to what they are used to, and embarrasing (at best) for those of us who watched on as we reflect on what our leadership has allowed to happen. But, it was also very predictable. It could have been different. A transition seems to have always been inevitable, but how it was managed was not.

As we consider climate change, emergent technologies, biodiversity loss, and equality, there are lessons to be learned. We are witnessing massive efforts put into sunset strategies as established companies that rely on, and are heavily indebted to, the “old normal” work desperately to see its return. Everything from PR to ideas of geoengineering is directed at a problem of their own making. In the end, though, the sun is going down on them. we must not be caught out as it does.

The emergent companies, the sunrise strategists, are pursuing very different strategies based on very different values. There are hundreds, thousands of them all working away around us, in enterprises of different sizes and ambitions. They are finding each other, and helping each other develop. they need support and recognition.

Right now, it is difficult to see how things will unfold. There is a lot of resource invested in sunset management, but we can be sure that the sun is going down on the industrial era and will rise onto a very different landscape.

We all need to make choices. I’m backing the sunrise organisations.

One response to “Sunrise vs Sunset Strategy”

  1. […] Sunset businesses fear the witchcraft of hedgewitches because they call out those carefully crafted but insufficient stories designed to pacify shareholders and other stakeholders, including employees. They have the capability to disrupt the status quo by linking to other hedgewitches and generating start ups. Social media gives them platforms. […]


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